It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted by Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers (new host of Monday reading: Kathryn T at Book Date). Since two of our friends, Linda from Teacher Dance and Tara from A Teaching Life have been joining this meme for quite awhile now, we thought of joining this warm and inviting community.
I have been hosting a Read Along Chat on Litsy given our #WomenReadWomen2019 theme, as can be seen below:
I am also, happily, a part of the #NYRBBookClub discussion over at Litsy, where we discussed a literary novel published in the ’60s that also look at female bonds, the unraveling of the self, with a few references to womanhood redefined and, yes, weddings!
Cassandra At The Wedding
Written by Dorothy Baker Afterword By Deborah Eisenberg
Published by NYRB Classics 2004 (first published 1962)
ISBN: 1590171128 (ISBN13: 9781590171127). E-book version borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book quotes layout via an iPhone app.
Buy Cassandra At The Wedding on Amazon | Book Depository
Cassandra Edwards is on her way home from graduate studies in Berkeley to stop her twin sister Judith’s wedding to a man whose name she couldn’t even bother remembering, as it is irrelevant. However, she made sure that she still covered her bases by purchasing a simple white gown using her grandmother’s credit card, of course, just in case. The exact same gown that her twin sister, the bride, also chose for herself.
In our book club discussion, it is apparent that most are taken by Cassandra’s infuriating, maddening, but also delightful voice. I was in the minority, in the sense that I found her haughty, convinced of her own superiority, spoiled, and utterly selfish. It was only in the latter part of the novel when it was revealed that she is clearly suffering from a mental health issue that I begin to perceive her in a different light. What she ultimately did to herself simply to prove a point made me berate myself for not recognizing the signs immediately.
The switch in the voice somewhere in the middle, with Judith speaking, also serves to surface Cassandra’s charisma and how people just seem to gravitate naturally towards her, making her a slightly more sympathetic character. There also appears to be some sort of co-dependency among the twin sisters, with Judith being able to successfully wriggle out of it somehow, and which Cassandra tries to hang on to with the tenacity of a bull.
Admittedly, my perception of Cassandra was coloured by the fact that the twins come from a very affluent family; hence, I found Cassandra’s concerns initially as shallow and needless. Definitely not urgent enough to put a stop to Judith’s wedding. In addition to being extremely wealthy, the entire family also sets itself apart from the rest (peasants, much?): an exclusive enclave of elite intellectuals with their lofty references known only to them and their learned ways. The famous dead writer mother and the philosophy professor father who has retreated from life with his premium bottle of Hennessy also add a complex layer to the narrative, mix in the well-meaning Grandmother with the generous purse strings who happens to be involved in the community and quite concerned with other people’s perceptions of them, then you have rich people’s problems in your hands as you read the novel. Yet, I recognize now that my unwitting prejudice, articulated as it is, has prevented me from truly seeing Cassandra’s suffering, as it was cloaked in a light-hearted, almost-flippant, easily-dismissed tone – yet there is real terror lurking underneath the surface: the fear of losing Judith, and by extension her very own self and identity – making her do what she did in the end, emphasizing the gravity of the situation.
The blurb of the book also mentions that Cassandra is gay – something that was only referred to quite obliquely in the novel, with the appearance of Cassandra’s female psychotherapist and the undercurrents of attraction going on there that were never really actualized, perhaps, just subtly alluded to. See the exchange below:
I needed to remind myself that this novel was published in the 60s – when these kinds of topics were considered unseemly; worse, taboo. Hence, positioning myself in that era, one re-conceives Cassandra as this maverick who simply wants to live her life defined by her own rules, darn all societal expectations. Yet she caves in somewhere in the end, but not after making a frightening pivot in the process. This also reveals how a woman like Cassandra, in a position of privilege and education, in the 60s could have viewed marriage:
This is a novel that only gradually grew on me; my appreciation of it heightened even more by our #NYRBBookClub discussion as we parse Cassandra’s motivations, and even try to determine whether she is suffering from borderline personality disorder or mood affective disorder (the latter being my suspicion, similar to what her mother may be suffering from).
At any rate, there were certain lines in the novel that truly spoke to me, this sage advice of Cassandra’s therapist, being one of them, as seen below:
Cassandra is compelling, unapologetic, whimsical, and courageous in her own way. Make sure you witness this wedding yourself.
Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows
Written by Balli Kaur Jaswal
Published by Harper Collins (2017)
ISBN: 000820991X (ISBN13: 9780008209919). Bought a copy of the book. Book quotes layout via an iPhone app.
This novel is decidedly female-centric, but also clearly enmeshed in Punjabi culture, particularly intergenerational Punjabi female migrants in the UK: talk about intersectionality, but done with a sleight-of-hand that is deft and smooth, neither heavy-handed nor prescriptive, but also with its own brand of in-your-face realness that rings true.
The central character in this story is Nikki, university drop-out, struggling to define who she is and what she wants to do for the rest of her life. In the process of self-discovery, Nikki finds herself even more entangled in the Punjabi community she tried to unwittingly disassociate herself from in her growing up years as she and her family acclimatized to the everyday demands of being Punjabis in London, navigating what she facetiously calls “a supermarket seasoning spice: East-West Mix.”
Nikki is earnest, convinced of the importance of passion as a sine-qua-non for whatever she decides to spend her entire life doing. She is decidedly modern, a striking contrast to her more conservative sister, Mindi, who is in the process of going for an arranged marriage, for which she needs Nikki’s help (her literary skills, in particular):
Nikki’s unlikely role as a creative writing facilitator slash literacy instructor of elderly Punjabi women who were too mature for ABCs but too inexperienced for more sophisticated and complex writing tasks – was filled with good intentions but fatally built on misguided preconceptions. It was this untangling of expectations, coming to terms with one’s womanity, and surfacing silenced voices that made this novel work so well for me. The story’s distinct sense of place, playful narrative, the fact that it never really took itself seriously (but does too, to a certain degree) made it a fast-paced read. It’s been awhile since I’ve read erotic stories and the ones here have a Scheherazade-Dunyazade vibe to them that I resonated with. My favourite among the widows is Arvinder:
I also appreciated the intergenerational issues represented among Punjabi women here, as reflected in this quote – which also highlight how conceptions of marital felicity have evolved over the years, as viewed by women:
This is the perfect poolside read: plot-driven, lots of funny dialogue, story-within-a-story format, death, mystery, and erotic stories. I am glad that this is my first Singapore read for #WomenReadWomen2019. I am excited to find Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novel published this year, The Unlikely Adventures Of The Shergill Sisters.
I look forward to reading any book Balli Kaur Jaswal writes.
#WomenReadWomen2019: 29 (of target 25): Singapore (Balli Kaur Jaswal)
Dorothy Baker – USA