“The problem with current [marriage] vows is their optimism, which should be radically tempered, so as to avoid rage and resentment.” (Alain de Botton)

Last week I got an invite to a friend’s wedding. I know you won’t judge me, my bookish friends, when I say that I was pleased to get the invite and looking forward to it, but only became truly excited when I saw it was taking place in the birthplace of a favourite poet – roll on October!

Anyway….. me being a selfish friend aside, this prompted me to think that June is traditionally a month for weddings and so a suitable theme for this week.

Firstly, The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers (1946), which tells the story of twelve-year old Frankie over a few sultry days in late August, around the wedding of her older brother:

“She knew that her only brother, Jarvis, was to be married. He had become engaged to a girl in Winter Hill just before he went to Alaska. Frankie had not seen her brother for a long, long time and his face had become masked and changing, like a face seen underwater. But Alaska! Frankie had dreamed of it constantly.”

Frankie is a misfit – very tall for a girl (I thought she sounded entirely normal but then I was 5’10” by age 14), with hair she’s just shorn into a crew cut, kept company by her housekeeper Berenice and her cousin John Henry, who is half her age.  Her mother died in childbirth and her father is a distant presence. She is deeply unhappy and pins all her hopes on her brother and his new wife taking her with them when they leave.

McCullers creates the stultifying atmosphere perfectly:

“The clock ticked very slowly on the shelf above the stove, and it was only quarter to six. The glare outside was still hard and yellow and bright. In the backyard the shade beneath the arbor was black and solid. Nothing moved. From somewhere far away came the sound of whistling, and it was grieving an August song that did not end. The minutes were very long.”

I don’t think it’s putting too much of a modern interpretation on the novel to say a dominant theme is about gender and identity. Frankie has a gender-neutral name and does not conform to a feminine ideal. John Henry wears a dress. Markers of identity shift: Berenice is African-American but has one blue eye, she knows a dark-skinned woman who has vitiligo, and she tells of a man who became a woman. Frankie’s name changes to F Jasmine in the second part of the novel. Both children feel their ideal world would not contain gender binaries:

“She planned it so that people could instantly change back and forth from boys to girls, whichever way they felt like and wanted. But Berenice would argue with her about this, insisting the law of human sex was exactly right as it was and could in no way be improved. And then John Henry West would very likely add his two cents’ worth about this time, and think that people ought to be half boy and half girl”

At core though, it is a tale of a sad, lonely, misunderstood child who desperately wants to be seen and heard, and believes the wedding day will give her this chance:

“And since it was the day when past and future mingled, F Jasmine did not wonder that it was strange and long. So these were the main reasons why F Jasmine felt, in an unworded way, that this was a morning different from all mornings she had ever known. And of all these facts and feelings the strongest of all was the need to be known for her true self and recognised.”

What Frankie needs to recognise is what she already has: a deep intimacy with Berenice and John Henry who both love her.

“The three of them sat silent, close together and they could feel and hear each other’s breaths.”

The Member of the Wedding is an atmospheric, touching story that has many layers to it. It’s a tightly contained novel (188 pages in my edition) which still manages a remarkable richness of characterisation and setting.

The Member of the Wedding was a Broadway production and then a film with the same actors in 1952. I’ve not seen it but I believe it was acclaimed, although the claustrophobic quality probably worked better on stage:

Secondly, Cassandra at the Wedding, by Dorothy Baker (1962). Like The Member of the Wedding, the story centres not on the couple but on someone with a strong emotional investment in the proceedings. Cassandra is writing her PhD at Berkley and has to return home because her twin sister Judith is marrying a doctor she met in New York. The sisters are exceptionally, unhealthily close and Judith’s move to New York had sent Cassandra into a tailspin. At the start of the novel she is considering the Golden Gate bridge in term of a suicide vehicle:

“I think I knew all the time I was sizing up the bridge that the strong possibility was I’d go home, attend my sister’s wedding as invited, help hook-and-zip her into whatever she wore, take over the bouquet while she received the ring, through the nose or on the finger, wherever she chose to receive it, and hold my peace.”

Their mother is dead and their father is an alcoholic. It becomes apparent that the twins’ claustrophobic relationship was an extension of the elitist, exclusive culture their parents encouraged. But Judith has realised that this was not a helpful way to live:

“as a family we’d always been something of a closed corporation…we had our own pinnacle to look down from. But when we went away to college we couldn’t quite keep it the way it was on the ranch.”

Judith has dared to want the ordinary: to be out in the world, to get married and to set up a home. The few days when they are both back at home will bring the twins’ differing needs into direct conflict.

“[I] stood up and looked down at Cass and knew I loved her, but that it was not the same thing as being married and feeling married, and that now it never could or would be. I felt very solemn about it, and solemn words came into my mind. ‘Whom God hath split asunder, let nothing join them together. Ever.’ “

Cassandra is an intriguing character: bright, funny, acerbic, incredibly vulnerable (she’s anorexic since Judith moved east) and monumentally selfish and self-centred. Her obsession with Judith is in many ways an extension of self-obsession:

 “To be like us isn’t easy, it requires constant attention to detail. I’ve thought it out; we’ve thought it out together. I’ve tried to explain to my doctor that it’s a question of working ceaselessly at being as different as possible because there must be a gap before it can be bridged. And the bridge is the real project.”

All the same I was rooting for Cassandra – not to get what she wanted, because that was a continuation of the destructively claustrophobic relationship with her sister – but to find a way through, for all involved.

Cassandra at the Wedding is a psychologically astute, funny and sad novel. Dorothy Baker balances the differing tones expertly; I’d definitely be interested to read more by her.

To end, The Dixie Cups in remarkable 1980s dresses (were wired hems a thing?), and looking like they’ve not bothered aging since their 60s heyday:

16 thoughts on ““The problem with current [marriage] vows is their optimism, which should be radically tempered, so as to avoid rage and resentment.” (Alain de Botton)

  1. I haven’t read The member of the Wedding, but it sounds fascinating, multi layered and those quotes are lovely. I very much enjoyed Cassandra at the Wedding, too. The relationship between the sisters is brilliantly explored.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I found The Member of the Wedding to be a story that’s deceptively simple. It’s a linear narrative and not much really happens, but the more I thought about it the more complex it seemed. I hope you enjoy it if you get to it Ali!

      Cassandra at the Wedding is great – I totally agree, the relationship between the sisters is so complex and believable.

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  2. I love Cassandra at the Wedding! It’s one of my all-time favourite novels, so it’s great to see it being celebrated here. As you bring out in your review, Cassandra is such a complex character – so fragile and vulnerable inside in spite of that outwardly sharp streak.

    Have you seen Noah Baumbach’s film Margot at the Wedding? I couldn’t help but think of it while I was reading Baker’s book as the themes it explores are somewhat similar.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cassandra really is a great character – so complex and infuriating yet endearing. It’s a brilliant piece of writing.

      You’ve solved a mystery for me Jacqui! When I was reading it I was convinced there’d been a film version but when I googled nothing came up that seemed right. I even remembered Nicole Kidman as the lead – I should have googled her and it would have explained my confusion! I’ve not seen it but I’ll hunt it down – it looks interesting.

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  3. I have both of these books in my TBR stack – will certainly be moving The Member of the Wedding up the list – I don’t think I knew that it was as old as it is….

    No, onto the issue of taffeta dresses. I wore a LOT of ruched and ruffled taffeta in the eighties (it was my peak, in terms of going to dances). While I certainly had many a leg o’ mutton sleeve (although never with a frill as well!), I never had wire in my hems… I obviously feel robbed now, seeing what it achieved for the Dixie Cups.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Member of the Wedding reads as very modern in lots of ways, it’s fascinating in that way. I hope you enjoy it!

      Thank goodness for your taffeta expertise! I didn’t remember hems like that but I wondered if I’d blocked them out. Of course, it’s never too late to start sporting a wired hem 😉

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    • I think you’d like the humour in Cassandra FF, its witty and sharp, but also clear its hiding a lot of Cassandra’s pain.

      Haha! I hadn’t thought of that but you’re right – its a lot less perky than when they were younger – not their first time at the chapel, one suspects!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved Carson McCullar’s writing, but it’s a long time since I read her. Sounds like a re-read is due…and your Dorothy Baker sounds intriguing. I loved that gif! Oh yes! The wired dresses weren’t the oddest things in your video though – the bride’s veil and the bride are really, REALLY creepy. I ‘m not sure who or what is underneath the veil….

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think she’d really lend herself to re-read Lady F, she’s a very subtle writer and you can get different things from her stories at different times.

      The whole audience thing is sooo odd isn’t it? And yes, what is that veil concealing…. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I haven’t read either of them, but I have read Alain’s balanced and sane takes on relationships. They should teach him in school.

    Sitting down in a wired hem would surely be tricky. Maybe for practicality (and when crushed on public transport) wired hems didn’t take off, and we should be thankful 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alain is great, so compassionate and wise. Totally agree – lessons about his writing would be a lot more use in the wider world than some of the stuff we learned in school!

      The only advantage of a wired hem that I can see is that you could probably carry snacks it. Then if you were on the bus and fancied a falafel – hey presto! No rooting around in bags. But I could also see cheeky toddlers making off with food they found at eye level 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I love that quote at the top of your post! Unfortunately I think he might be right. 😉

    Another great theme! I’ve not heard of The Member of the Wedding, but have heard quite a lot about Cassandra at the Wedding – all good things!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really like Alain de Botton! I haven’t read all he’s written about marriage but I think he’s quite positive about it, he just thinks we need to change our expectations of it & we’ll all be happier 🙂

      I really enjoyed both these novels. The main protagonists were such great idiosyncratic, spiky, vulnerable people!

      Liked by 1 person

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