A Uniquely Entertaining Time-Travel Tale
Cassandra in Reverse by Holly Smale is a twist-filled time-travel story that's like Groundhog Day meets Sliding Doors.
Cassandra Penelope Dankworth is a creature of habit. She likes what she likes (museums, jumpsuits, her boyfriend, Will) and strongly dislikes what she doesn't (mess, change, her boss drinking out of her mug). Her life runs in a pleasing, predictable order…until now.
She's just been dumped.
She's just been fired.
Her local café has run out of banana muffins.
Then, something truly unexpected happens: Cassie discovers she can go back and change the past. One small rewind at a time, Cassie attempts to fix the life she accidentally obliterated, but soon she'll discover she's trying to fix all the wrong things.
Cassandra was chosen for Reese Witherspoon's Book Club back in June, and Reese wrote:
"This super charming and witty novel is about main character Cassie who is stuck in a time loop while trying to fix the third worst day of her life. You may THINK you know what’s going on... but keep reading!!"
- Reese Witherspoon
From my past reviews of things like Timeless, Terminator, and (most recently) Lost in Time, the regulars here will know that I have a soft spot for time travel stories. It probably isn't a surprise that I liked Cassandra, which puts a different spin on the usual tropes.
Though she initially finds herself reliving the same day over and over (ala the movie Groundhog Day), Cassie soon discovers that she has control over the time loop. She can zip back in time by minutes, days, or even weeks like a big rewind button for the last four months of her life (an oddly specific timeframe whose relevance unfolds over the course of the story.)
I love that Cassie doesn't immediately use this power for any of the stereotypical time travel things like getting rich or averting catastrophes. No, she uses it in hilariously mundane ways:
I fall asleep on the tube and end up in Walthamstow. Undo.
I make it to work and send a press release with my client’s website spelled wrong to fifty journalists. Undo.
I drop a full bowl of porridge on my keyboard. Undo.
… and so on.
This conceit raises some interesting ethical dilemmas that the book doesn't shy away from. By giving herself endless do-overs, is Cassie just manipulating the people around her? Is she creating alternate timelines and leaving behind a mess for some other alt-Cassie to clean up?
Nowhere is this conundrum more evident than when Cassie tries to fix her relationship with the boyfriend who dumped her. At times she seems unhealthily obsessed with engineering the perfect meet-cute, first date, etc., and this does start to get a little tedious. But (without giving away any spoilers), it gets better. As Cassie tries repeatedly to fix the three main things that imploded on the day this all started (boyfriend, roommates, job), things begin to spiral out of control and she starts questioning whether she's doing the right thing at all.
Time travel morality aside, what I loved most about the story was Cassie herself. Her witty observations really made the story sing. Things like:
If the universe wanted somebody capable of fully exploring the furthest limits of time travel, it probably wouldn’t have picked me: a woman who has eaten the exact same breakfast every morning since she was six.
Earnest portrayals of neurodivergent protagonists are few and far between, and I appreciated that the story honestly depicted Cassie's challenges. Overwhelmed by sounds; befuddled by unwritten social rules; beholden to strict routines of food and clothing; driven mad by pointless work meetings—Cassie sees and experiences the world differently from those around her. Her struggles to fit in have resonated not only with other autistics, but also more broadly across the neurodivergent community. It's important to note, however, that these experiences are not universal. As Smale herself points out:
"This book does not represent autism, and neither I nor Cassie represent autistic people. We are simply individual voices in a choir of millions of amazing neurodivergent people, all with our own experiences, our own ways of seeing the world, our own ways of existing."
- Holly Smale
We can appreciate the story for making some folks feel represented, while also acknowledging that it doesn't (and couldn't possibly) represent everyone. It's great to see more diverse stories getting recognition. For me, at least, Cassandra was one of the most relatable things I've ever read.
Learn more about the book and Smale's experiences in this interview over on Amazon:
- Princess Power:
- Bechdel Test: Pass
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