Well this was a wild ride, not at all what the demure matrimonial title might suggest. A Freudian field-day centred on identical twin sisters – the delightfully unhinged Cassandra and placid conventional Judith – with more existential angst, internal conflict, sibling rivalry and familial dysfunction than you might imagine could be contained in 256 pages.
Cassandra leaves her meagre grad student life in Berkeley to drive to the family home for Judith’s marriage to the eminently suitable and sensible Dr Jack Finch. Not terribly stable at the best of times, she’s consumed with grief at the prospect of being severed forever from her other self, and detests her future brother-in-law before ever having met him. Cassandra wants Judith all to herself, but Judith wants a normal life of her own. She arrives early for some quality time with Judith before Jack arrives for the wedding; said quality time takes a dark turn as Cassandra completely unravels, and the first part of the book ends with one of the most unforgettably poignant scenes I’ve ever read.
This makes it sound a far more grim read than it is. It’s a joy, really. The mordant wit, snappy one-liners, brilliant word-play and bittersweet narrative are up right there with Dorothy Parker. Quotable lines leap off every page, the dialogue is suave and sparkling, and there’s a fine supporting cast for some light relief from the sibling intensity: their father, a bemused brandy-soaked academic recluse, their glamorous tempestuous mother – dead, but still very much in play – their sweet old granny, and Cassandra’s sinister analyst. The character dynamics are drawn to perfection, the pacing is exquisite, and it’s all pulled off with such effortless lightness that you forget it’s not a humorous little story of an amusing unconventional family getting together for a wedding but a life-or-death battle at the edge of the abyss. For Cassandra, anyway.
Cassandra absolutely steals the limelight, in every sense. Far too clever for her own good, self-destructive, maddening, caustic, but so vulnerable and complicated and screwed up – I adored her. Her cursory affairs with women are mentioned surprisingly casually for the period – ‘occupational therapy, without the therapy’, as she describes it, one of my favourite lines. An absolute five-star gem.