Cascade by Maryanne O'Hara
It's 1935 and Desdemona Hart Spaulding's life is far from what she anticipated after years spent studying art in Boston and Paris. Instead of the bright future she imagined of working as a painter in New York, Dez finds herself locked in a marriage of convenience to a kind but passionless pharmacist in the small town of Cascade, Massachusetts; a commitment made entirely for the sake of her dying father and his beloved Shakespeare theater. As Cascade becomes the potential location for a new reservoir to serve the city of Boston, all of the things Dez has put aside her dreams to work for become threatened, including the Shakespeare theater she vowed to someday reopen. She and the rest of the impassioned townspeople are determined to save Cascade, but when Dez begins to fall in love with Jewish peddler Jacob Solomon, a New York-bound artist just as she aspired to be, she finds out what happens when our heart and morality are stretched in two different directions.
There's much more to Maryanne O'Hara's debut novel that I haven’t captured, and I wish I could, but I think a great deal of the novel’s beautiful, melancholic success lies in the natural discovery of its story. This is one of those truly layered books that leave you, by the end, feeling so excitingly full and reflective. I’ll be thinking about it for a long time, pursuing the different powerful emotions and the inner dialogue it created. What it achieves is done through both the profoundly moving visuals it creates and the cerebral reaction that O'Hara's prose evokes. I felt the presence of artistry in so many ways. The idea of a devastating, yet ultimately beguiling, transformation of a town – emptied of its residents and churches and quaint storefronts – into a broad lake; a man-made civilization turned into a natural nothingness. Nature turned to civilization turned to nature; it struck me as a startling and beautiful depiction of the fragility of what we contribute to the world. Likewise, the passion Dez has for painting – and the infusion of wonderfully researched detail – added a different sort of richness that I found fascinating. One of my favorite elements was Desdemona’s most significant painting, The Black Veil, and the symbolic role it played in the novel as a whole. Like the painting, Cascade had the feeling of being shrouded; veiled by the changeability and heaviness of the decisions we make.
Another art that played an entertaining role was that of Shakespeare and his work. I enjoyed how O'Hara incorporated some of the concepts and themes of Shakespeare’s plays so gently into the story that he felt connected without being imitated. One of my favorite plays, The Tempest, takes a particularly central focus and I loved seeing some of my favorite passages repeated and reinterpreted as it was sifted through the novel. Nature, art, literature; the inherent way in which all of these things were combined jumped off the pages, carried along on O'Hara's lovely prose, in a way that felt enchanting as it was almost heartbreaking. Almost, but not quite; I didn't feel that the novel set out to either break or warm hearts, but certainly to move them. There was a sort of breaking away from the typical formula that I really enjoyed. While much of Cascade is about the fragility of the decisions we make and the effect they have on the course of our lives, the story presents that concept to the reader in a way that makes us feel like we’re experiencing it for the first time. The story is far from predictable, and it leans neither in a happy or unhappy direction; it very much creates its own path. In that way the reaction from the reader will be especially subjective, and I think the true test of compatibility with the story lies in the reader’s reception of Desdemona. Her passion often seemed to flounder under the weight of the hand she’d been dealt, but her strength to face her decisions ultimately carries her through. One of the things I loved about her was that she always had courage; I felt like I knew her well almost immediately, and I understood the decisions she made along the way. I wanted her to find happiness, but the exciting thing was that – like Dez herself - I had no idea which path was actually her road to happiness, and I felt as surprised as she did along the way. On the whole, Cascade felt quietly exhilarating, a meaningful debut from a writer especially talented in drawing imagery from words.
(I also have to add my appreciation for Emily Mahon's cover design; I felt like it truly captured the vision I got of the novel -- and it's just gorgeous!)