54 pages 1 hour read

Holly Smale

Cassandra in Reverse

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2023

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Summary and Study Guide


Holly Smale’s first novel for adults was published in 2023, titled Cassandra in Reverse in the US and The Cassandra Complex in the UK. Smale was diagnosed with autism at the age of 39, which helped her understand herself and motivated her to advocate for representations of neurodiversity. Cassandra in Reverse’s protagonist, Cassandra Penelope Dankworth, experiences a similar situation: Having always known she was different, she realizes she likely has autism at the age of 31, near the conclusion of the novel. Cassandra in Reverse’s genre is contemporary magical realism, and its magical conceit is that the protagonist develops an ability to rewind time. The novel subverts expectations of the time-travel trope in that Cassie primarily uses her ability for banal reasons, like correcting minor daily errors and avoiding awkward social interactions, rather than dramatic ones. Several of the novel’s primary themes relate to neurodiversity as Smale explores internal and external perceptions of neurodivergence, the importance of human connection, and inevitability and fate.

The novel has been selected as a Reese’s Book Club pick (US) and BBC Radio 2 Book Club pick (UK).

This guide refers to the 2023 MIRA Books edition.

Plot Summary

The novel opens with Cassandra Penelope Dankworth having just been fired from her job at a public relations firm, after her boyfriend of four months, Will, broke up with her earlier that morning. Overwhelmed, Cassie rushes from the office, is dismayed to find that the café she frequents doesn’t have banana muffins—a major source of comfort and consistency—and is swept up in an anti-fur protest. She experiences a blackout in the doorway of a bar, then returns home to her flat. Her roommates, Salini (Sal) and Derek, a couple, are cold with Cassie because of a previous misunderstanding that occurred when Derek hit on her and denied it, and Sal believed his side of the story.

Later, Cassie is surprised to find her ex-boyfriend Will there to pick her up for the same date they had the night before. When he breaks up with her again the following morning, she begins to worry that she’s caught in a time loop. After she’s fired for the second day in a row, she makes a change to her actions by dropping a plant that her colleague, Ron, came to claim as his own when she tried to pack it with her possessions, instead of giving it back, as she did the previous day. This confirms to her that things can be changed or fixed.

Cassie decides she needs to learn to control time and repeatedly returns to the doorway of the bar to try again. Having lost her parents in a car accident a decade earlier, an event that led to an estrangement from her sister, Artemis, after an argument at the funeral (though this isn’t revealed until much later in the narrative), Cassie decides she needs to return to the point where her life went off course. Disappointed at not having appeared to go anywhere, she runs into Will and realizes she has traveled back four months to the day they met. After numerous attempts, Cassie realizes this seems to be the furthest back in time she can go. She decides Will is important to her and intends to use her new ability to make their relationship work and returns to the café where they first met. She finds it difficult to tell him she doesn’t mind if he sits down and rewinds time several times before she is able to initiate their conversation.

She realizes that her aims for her time-travel ability are to save her relationship with Will, her living situation—as the altercation with Sal and Derek has not yet occurred—and her job. She rewinds her initial meeting with Jack and Gareth, her clients at SharkSkin, a men’s skincare company, and while she improves relations somewhat, isn’t able to divert Jack from the marketing campaign she knows will be a disaster.

Cassie’s second first date with Will is more successful, given her ability to rewind when she makes an “error,” and she finds herself unexpectedly enjoying it. She also enjoys taking the day off work (intending to just repeat the day when her lack of attendance results in being fired) to go to the British Museum. She is upset to see Artemis there and goes back in time to avoid her sister, who is still unidentified at this point in the narrative. She repeats an “Idea Hurricane,” her office’s weekly collective brainstorming session, numerous times to prevent being fired. This repetition results in a colleague she previously found grating, Sophie, delivering a good idea for the campaign. Cassie invites Sophie to be on the team, and they begin to form a connection.

Cassie takes Will to Cambridge on their next date. Before this, she hadn’t returned to her hometown since her parents’ funeral a decade earlier. She is surprised to find that she feels at home, rather than the overwhelming sadness she expected. She rewinds the date several times when things go wrong and is pleased with its eventual conclusion. Returning home, she again sees Artemis, this time waiting outside her flat. Though she initially declined when Will asked her to go back to his place, she rewinds and does so to avoid her sister. They have sex, which is initially bad, so Cassie rewinds and repeats it seven times until it improves.

Derek again hits on Cassie, which she initially avoids with time travel, and next with closing her door on him. While she is increasingly convinced of his creepiness, she still doubts herself and worries about whether the “miscommunication” with Sal will eventually repeat itself. At work, Cassie is touched when Sophie offers to make all the phone calls to journalists for the SharkSkin campaign, realizing the task is difficult for Cassie. Cassie attends a photography exhibition with Will, seeing Artemis—who tells Will her name is Diana and introduces herself as Cassie’s “first flatmate”—there. The sisters argue about their differences, primarily seeing the world in shades of gray as opposed to understanding it with rigid compartmentalization, but still in vague details, so the reader doesn’t yet know who they are to each other or the content of their estrangement. Cassie is upset to find that Will is terse after the exhibition, and when they go on their next date, she realizes that he’s about to break up with her, and their relationship has reached the same conclusion three months early. This time, he announces that he’s met someone else.

Cassie is invited to a work gala to celebrate the success of the new SharkSkin campaign. When she goes to invite Sophie, Cassie remembers that she’d asked Sophie to take a call on the night of the photography exhibit and asks for details that reveal it was Artemis. She goes to Will’s office and sees him and her sister on a date in the building’s café. She and Artemis finally reconcile and begin to rebuild their relationship, first in the pub that day, and later during a weekend in Cornwall. While she has sworn off time travel, she uses her ability again when Will and Artemis realize their connection through her, and she attempts to buy herself more time before she’ll need to tell them. Cassie realizes that she is not heartbroken about Will and that she feels he and Artemis are a better fit.

Cassie returns to her flat after her holiday, and Derek hits on her again. This time, through her increased self-trust and the connection she’s built with Sal, the situation goes much differently: Sal throws Derek out of the apartment and invites Cassie to have a drink with her the following evening. At the SharkSkin gala, Cassie meets Cameron (whom she previously thought was called Ronald), and they make a connection, realizing they’re very similar. When called to give a speech, Cassie announces that she’ll be quitting her job, because she hates it.

Artemis is waiting for her outside the gala and suggests that they need to talk about the events of their parents’ funeral. The narrative returns to a decade earlier when a drunk Artemis accuses Cassie of occasioning their parents’ car accident by calling them incessantly. Artemis labels Cassie a monster. In the present, they both apologize, and Cassie asks Artemis why she was particularly persistent in this attempt to locate her. Artemis tells her that, thinking of selling the house, she found a file in the attic that detailed their mother’s autism diagnosis, received six months before her death. A handwritten note on the last page of the file reads “and Cassandra,” and while Cassie is initially skeptical that she could not have known for this long, begins to feel relieved at understanding herself better.

Having decided to apply to Cambridge to study Classics, Cassie meets a group including Sal, Sophie, Cameron, and Artemis in a London pub for a leaving party. When Will arrives, Cassie realizes that she never told Artemis that she dated him nor revealed to Will that Artemis is her sister. Will leaves when he realizes the connection, and Cassie prepares to time travel again. While Artemis tries to talk her out of it, Cassie assures her sister that, knowing what she does now, she’ll be able to rebuild her relationship with her sister and make the other changes she’s achieved to her life, while also ensuring that she never dates Will in the first place. The novel concludes with Cassie closing her eyes to go back in time again.