By: Maryanne O'Hara
ISBN: 978-0-670-02602-9 About the book:
Cascade, Massachusetts, 1935. Desdemona Hart Spaulding, a talented young artist who studied in Paris, has sacrificed her dreams of working in New York City to put a roof over her newly bankrupt and ailing father's head. Two months later he has died and Dez is bound by the promises she has made to her father, her husband, and her town. Dez is stifled by her marriage to kind but conservative Asa, who is impatient to start a family, and her ambitions are fading. She also stands to lose her father's legacy, the Cascade Shakespeare Theatre, as Massachusetts decides whether to flood Cascade to create a new reservoir for Boston.
Amid this turmoil arrives Jacob Solomon, a fellow artist and kindred spirit for whom Dez feels an immediate and strong attraction. As their relationship reaches a pivotal moment, a man is found dead and the town points its collective finger at Jacob, a Jewish outsider. When unexpected acclaim and a chance to recapture her lost dreams of life in New York City arise, Dez must make an impossible choice.
As the threads of this enthralling novel intertwine, they weave a portrait of an unforgettable young woman who finds herself caught in the age-old struggle between duty and desire.
As what comes to be known as the Great Depression spreads its stranglehold across America, from the crowded streets of New York to the western plains, aspiring artist Desdemona Hart finds her life irrevocably changed. When the fallout from the flailing financial markets wiped out her father's resources, including the family home, Dez was forced to give up her precious art school, the tuition far too dear. Instead of moving to New York City and immersing herself in the whirlwind of its cosmopolitan art scene, she agrees to marry Asa Spaulding, the local pharmacist, in order to provide a roof over her ailing father's head. But a scant two months into the marriage of convenience, Dez's father dies, having given his precious Shakespearean playhouse to his son-in-law while leaving Dez charged with seeing the once-famous summer theater brought to life once more. Stifled by the trappings of the domestic life she never wanted, Dez finds solace in the weekly visits from Jacob, a Jewish peddler and fellow artist, giving birth to a dangerous and all-consuming attraction. As Dez's hometown faces the threat of imminent domain, takeover by the government in order to provide nearby Boston with a precious water supply, Dez is faced with a choice. Will she settle for a life of tradition and security, or will the call of her art, the desire to create, prove too great a lure?
Cascade is a lyrical debut, marking Maryanne O'Hara as an author to watch. Set during one of my favorite historical time periods -- the tumultuous 1930s, with the ever-encroaching threat of a second world war on the horizon, O'Hara has crafted a novel of a woman, her town, and indeed the world on the brink. Caught in the raging, warring waters of societal expectations, world events, personal desire, and life's greatest constant -- change -- Cascade is in many respects a chronicle of how mankind alternately embraces and fights the great river that, over time, forms the path and direction of one's life.
Given the time period in which Dez's story occurs, and the unexpected (and delightful!) nods to Shakespeare throughout the novel, I hoped to love Cascade. And while there is much to appreciate in O'Hara's lyrical prose and grasp of time and place, for fully the first two-thirds of the novel I struggled to tolerate Desdemonda. While the circumstances that drove her to make the sacrifice of a hasty marriage to Asa are compellingly set forth, from the moment her father dies and Jacob is introduced into the narrative she becomes selfish and cloyingly immature. There are flashes of remorse, of second-guessing, but for the Dez of Cascade art, the desire to create, to leave her mark, trumps everything. While I realize divorce carried a stigma in the '30s that has been largely lost today, Dez's half-hearted attempts at maintaining the status quo while romanticizing her affair de coeur with Jacob, elevating it to the levels of star-crossed Shakespearean tragedy, fell flat.
That said, despite my issues in connecting with Dez, O'Hara's use of water imagery throughout the novel is masterful, a compelling study in how much we are formed by the events we encounter -- to what extent are we products of our circumstances, and to what lengths can we form our futures by how we respond to those experiences. I loved how Dez is drowning in her choices -- namely, a convenient marriage -- even as her town faces flooding. She loses herself in her attraction to Jacob even as the world around her is engulfed by an ever-encroaching flood of anti-Semitism. And, most tragically, she nearly loses any hope of a future as she becomes so obsessed with what-ifs and might-have-beens that she nearly drowns, carried under by the weighty baggage of her own emotional history.
Despite my personal dislike for the manner in which Dez chooses to pursue her dreams, by the final third of the novel, when both Dez and Cascade's lives reach their respective crisis points, I was thoroughly invested in O'Hara's storytelling. Her world-building is superb, and her gift with language and her artistic flair for vibrant, visual imagery is oft-times stunning. Much like the postcards Dez creates documenting Cascade's eventual destruction, O'Hara's debut is a beautifully-rendered "postcard" snapshot of a world in flux, but -- like the timeless final words of The Tempest (one of my favorite plays), an unflinchingly honest, beautifully stark examination of the best and worst life offers and lasting power of art as a vehicle to document, encourage, and challenge both the creator and its audience.