Did I apply for this book on NetGalley solely because of the title and story’s surface similarities to Oona Out of Order? You bet I did. Cassandra in Reverse even has a blurb from Margaret Montimore. But don’t let this association colour your ideas about Holly Smale’s take on time-hopping through one’s own life, for this novel is very much its own story—and it’s a good one. Thank you to publisher MIRA for the eARC!
Cassandra Dankworth is dumped by her boyfriend and fired from her job on the same day. Also, her flatmate situation has become untenable. After this no good, very bad day, Cassandra is at her wit’s end. Overwhelmed and defeated, that’s when she discovers for the first time that she can, through sheer mental effort, travel back along her own timeline and relive her life from any point. She can’t go back all that far—certainly not far enough to save her parents from a fatal traffic collision when she was younger. But four months is enough time to save her relationship, her living situation, and her career. Right?
As I said in my introduction and is worth reiterating here: when you look at Cassandra in Reverse more closely, it’s actually quite distinct from Oona Out of Order. Notably, Cassandra has agency over her time-travel ability, whereas Oona is a passenger on her nonlinear life. Cassandra’s ability is a kind of gigantic do-over button—and who hasn’t wished for this power, let’s be honest? Any time I say something that proves mildly embarrassing or uncomfortable, any time the perfectionist in me thinks “I could have handled that better,” I wish for exactly this ability to blink my way back to that moment and do it ever so slightly better.
Of course, this leads to some self-imposed Groundhog Days, if you will, as Cassandra starts to obsess over getting certain days right. The iterations start to blur together (both to her and the reader), a deliberate decision on Smale’s part, I believe, that helps us to see how confusing this experience must be for Cassandra. Living a single day over and over is one thing—redoing weeks at a time, while trying to hold memories of all the different timelines in one’s head? That must be an incredible feat!
The book left me with several unanswered questions about Cassandra’s ability. First, there’s no explanation for why she can time travel (fair enough) nor why she can, seemingly arbitrarily, only go back to about four months prior to the start of the book. Perhaps most intriguing to me is the possibility that this ability makes Cassandra effectively immortal, albeit with some caveats. In theory, she could live out her life and then, in her old age, travel back in time to a younger age and keep looping her life, even trying different variations of it. Of course, this assumes that her ability remains viable for the rest of her life (and that she could go back further than four months prior by then). But it’s an interesting idea!
To be clear, the fact that none of these questions are answered doesn’t bother me in the slightest, I just wanted to ruminate on them in my review.
Indeed, I rather like that Cassandra raises some questions about the ethics of time travel at all. As I mentioned in my review of Some Desperate Glory, my experience watching The Flash TV series has thoroughly convinced me that time travel is largely unethical. Cassandra ponders what happens to each timeline she abandons when she travels back to reset hers: what happens to all the other people, all their lives that get reset? At some points, Smale demonstrates how tiny changes in Cassandra’s actions inadvertently ripple out in a butterfly effect to alter the courses of lives of people she didn’t even intend to affect. That’s an awesome responsibility. Moreover, what if there were two people with this ability wielding it at the same time? A kind of time travellers’ duel, if you will? Frightening.
Oh, I’m supposed to be reviewing the book, you say? Oops. I guess you could say this is my praise for Cassandra in Reverse: it does what any good time-travel story should do, which is get me thinking about the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey nature of time travel!
I also have conditional praise for the portrayal of an autistic protagonist in Cassandra. I say conditional because I’m allistic, so it’s not really my lane to evaluate Cassandra as autistic representation. The dearth of autistic representation in mainstream fiction means that, inevitably, we put too much pressure on individual instances of own-voices rep to capture every nuance of identities that are necessarily not monolithic. Cassandra is one particular portrayal of one particular experience of being an autistic woman in English society—and it’s a portrayal that I suspect won’t satisfy some autistic people. At the same time, I hope others feel very seen by what Cassandra undergoes in this book.
Speaking only from my perspective as an allistic yet neurodivergent woman: I really liked how Smale captures how much our society is not designed for autistic people. Cassandra is very sensitive to smells, very much likes having all of her things in the right place, has trouble reading people’s emotional states, etc.—traits that we often dismiss or outright mock, usually in ableist ways. Told from her first-person perspective, however, her experiences are less about stereotypes and more about an accounting of the struggle to exist in a society that’s constantly gaslighting you simply for who you are.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Cassandra’s interactions with her coworkers. I am so happy that Cassandra ends up finding a friend in one of them—watching that relationship grow, albeit iteratively as Cassandra resets the timeline, was one of the most delightful parts of this book. The rest of her coworkers are incredibly ableist in the most dull ways. There were moments when I groaned because it felt like they were caricatures, almost, or at least not sketched in great detail. That being said, towards the end of the book we see moments of greater depth from some of them (like Barry), and I do appreciate that.
Then we have Cassandra’s relationships with her boyfriend and sister. It’s doubly hard for me to comment on the former, because not only am I not autistic but I’m also aromantic (although maybe in this case that means I can at least better approximate Cassandra’s confusion about what Will expects from her, because I would feel much the same, I suspect). Suffice it to say, Cassandra’s attempts to “fix” things with Will are, as far as I understand, a very real if painful portrayal of how our society makes autistic people feel broken for not fitting into the moulds and roles we expect in these areas of life. In the same way, the rift between Cassandra and her sister exists for several reasons—notably the trauma following their parents’ untimely deaths—yet Cassanda’s undiagnosed autism lurks at the heart of those reasons.
Again, Smale’s point is not that Cassandra is the broken one but rather that our society is broken. I fear that some allistic readers will pick up this book, read a couple of chapters, and put it down, deriding Cassandra as an annoying or anal character, calling her unlikable—precisely the reaction, essentially, of the coworkers and clients in this book. If you stick around, you’ll see what Smale is doing, I hope. You’ll see how Cassandra is using time travel as the ultimate masking tool.
Which is why I don’t know how I feel about the ending.
No, actually, I think I really don’t like the ending.
I’m not going to spoil it. I don’t want to discuss it here in that much detail. But I can describe how it made me feel: ambivalent, and now as I write this review slightly betrayed. Maybe I am misunderstanding Smale’s theme, or maybe I just don’t see how this ending ultimately caps that theme. From where I sit, unfortunately, the ending seems to undermine it—establishing that Cassandra is as doomed as her counterpart from Greek mythology, essentially. I don’t know—if you liked the ending or want to share your interpretation of it, hit me up on Twitter and let’s chat.
Cassandra in Reverse has its rough patches, to be sure. Many of the deliberate artistic choices on Smale’s part (the repetitive structure, the portrayal of Cassandra’s autism) will make this book less enjoyable for some readers. Yet it is those same choices that make this book memorable, unique, valuable, in my opinion. Smale sets out to say something interesting, and her take on a time-travel story involving romance and family drama and dealing with trauma deserves definitely got me thinking about all of these things.