“People Pick” 2012
“Great Reads/ New in Paperback” 2013
Set during the Depression, Maryanne O’Hara’s luminous first novel centers on a woman torn between bit-city dreams and life as a small-town wife and mother. Forced to leave art school after her father can no longer pay the tuition, Desdemona Hart returns to rural Cascade, Mass., to find her dad in failing health and her childhood home in foreclosure. A gifted artist who’s studied in Paris and longs to work in New York City, Dez instead marries local Asa Spaulding, who has loved her fiercely all her life. “She suspected he was secretly grateful when their fortunes turned upside down,” O’Hara writes. “It gave him the chance to step in and save them.” As her husband pushes for children and conformity, Dez finds herself increasingly isolated from teh community. But when plans to dam a nearby river threaten the town’s existence, she discovers a way to fight for its survival that just may save her soul as well. Gorgeously written and involving, Cascade explores the age-old conflict between a woman’s perceived duty and her deepest desires, but in O’Hara’s skilled hands the struggle feels fresh and new.
The Boston Globe
What do we have to give up to be whom we yearn to be? O’Hara’s richly satisfying new novel grapples with small town limitations vs. big city sparkle, as well as the twists and turns in life that can either make or derail us. What makes the story all the more engrossing is that it’s set against the eerie backdrop of 1930s Cascade, Mass., a town about to be flooded to make way for a reservoir.
Desdemona, a promising artist, lives in the tiny town of Cascade, and is fast-tracking her way to a career in New York City. But then her father dies, and with him, so do most of her dreams. He leaves her drowning in bills. Even worse, his beloved Shakespeare Theater, that was to have been her legacy, has been willed to one Asa Spaulding, a man with a colorless personality whom everyone thinks she should marry. And marry she does, because she wants the theater to survive, and what other recourse does a woman have? Married life is stifling, especially with a man like Asa, who doesn’t understand her or her desperate need to create art, who views humdrum Cascade as a paradise, and who pushes her to be a proper wife and give him a child. But Dez is anything but proper. She doesn’t want babies (“No babies means you can leave.”) She isn’t interested in socializing with the local women, (which will have dire ramifications later). She yearns for her father’s theater to be reopened and filled with her paintings and New York City summer people and she prefers the company of Jacob, a Jewish artist from New York. Bonded from the first hello, the two are soon igniting sparks, even as Asa’s suspicions are aroused, and anti-semitism begins to rear its ugly head.
But there are bigger issues in the town. The Massachusetts Water Board decides it needs a reservoir, and to do that, it needs to drown one or two towns, and Cascade seems their first pick. Asa immediately goes to battle to save his beloved home, and enlists his wife’s help.
But Dez’s heart is elsewhere and she’s determined to follow it. She takes it upon herself to contact an important New York magazine and propose a series of postcards she would illustrate, all about the impending doom of her town, before, during, and after its flooding. Asa and others believe the postcards might actually encourage public support to not drown Cascade, to see it as a living, breathing town worthy of survival, but the magazine has other plans, and Dez, desperate to be a working artist, will do whatever she has to to make that happen, even lie or betray the ones counting on her. “Maybe every person’s first reaction to a problem was instinctively selfish,” she says.
Dez doesn’t always make the best choices and O’Hara makes her radiantly complex and human, a character who isn’t entirely innocent and who is torn between doing what is right, and doing what is right for her. She lies. She can be foolish. She says, “We are all capable of anything, given the right circumstances,” and that includes her part in a terrible tragedy, when a man from the Water Board is found dead, Jacob is suspect, and everything anyone believed about Dez somehow seems questionable, as well. And as Dez’s marriage collapses, she finally goes to New York City to try to have the two things she most wants: a life as an artist, and a life with Jacob. But again, this is a decision as tumultuous as a flood, and nothing turns out the way she expects.
From the tinsel glitter of the New York City art world to the ease in which a small town can become a ghost town, O’Hara deftly recreates a time and place. Nazi Germany rumbles in the distance, the WPA beckons like a promise, and characters struggle to find the life that might fulfill them, even as they grapple with love, loyalty, and their own notion of where they really belong.
“Cascade” unfolds like a Shakespearean tragedy, with an ending you won’t see coming. “I couldn’t let it go. You understand that don’t you?” Dez asks, a line that resonates with all of these characters, from Asa to Jacob, in a debut that positively shimmers. While some of “Cascade” feels a little too orchestrated and convenient, such as Dez’s getting a New York magazine interested in her small town’s fate and its immediate willingness to hire an unknown to do the artwork, the novel steadily builds in power. Much like a drowned town, the novel becomes something that you can’t take your eyes from or stop thinking about in wonder.
“I stayed up very late into the night to finish Cascade, captivated by Dez Hart, a woman torn between competing loyalties: her marriage and her freedom, her sense of responsibility and her desire to live an artist’s fiercely disciplined and passionate life. Past and place come alive in this book; these characters are richly drawn and complexly human. Compelling and fascinating, the story unfolds in such unexpected ways, and with such gathering tension, that I couldn’t stop until I’d read the final, beautifully written, line.”
—Kim Edwards, New York Times bestselling author of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter and Lake of Dreams
“Maryanne O’Hara weaves as intricate, as theatrical, and as tempestuous a plot as deftly as Prospero. Through the eyes of an artist yearning for a larger life-canvas but constrained by a humdrum marriage in a town careening toward destruction, we see the failings of men and women in their tangled relationships, each member of the cast struggling to find a fulfilling life. Save the town! Save the Shakespearean theater! Save our dreams, we cry out with the players.”
—Susan Vreeland, New York Times bestselling author of Girl in Hyacinth Blue and Clara and Mr. Tiffany
“Maryanne O’Hara’s debut novel of a married woman suffocated by small-town America brings to mind Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. O’Hara’s story is engrossing and her prose luminous as she tells of a talented artist torn between ambition and conformity. Expect to hear more from this remarkable author.”
—Sandra Dallas, New York Times bestselling author of Prayers for Sale and True Sisters.
“This is a magnificent literary achievement. The novel carries us with startling authenticity and emotionality as we follow a young woman trying to unfetter herself from the societal strictures of 1930s Massachusetts and liberate her artistic talents in New York City. Finely and expertly wrought, Cascade is absolutely riveting from start to finish.”
—Don Lee, author of The Collective and Country of Origin.
“In Cascade Maryanne O’Hara has created a splendid heroine, Desdemona, who does not intend to follow her namesake’s example, and a wonderfully intricate plot. Turning these pages, I felt utterly transported to 1930s Massachusetts; at the same time I was struck by how relevant Desdemona’s choices still are. This is a lovely, intelligent and deeply satisfying novel.”
—Margot Livesey, author of The House on Fortune Street, Eva Moves the Furniture and The Flight of Gemma Hardy
“Maryanne O’Hara invites the reader into the life of a young artist, Desdemona Hart, whose sacrifice for love spawns a cascade of secrets that threatens not only to undo her, but also a town, a way of life, and the heritage her beloved father has left them all. Rich with painterly image and flickering with desire, Cascade explores how passion—for life, for love, for art—can determine destiny.”
—Robin Oliveira, author of My Name is Mary Sutter
“Yearning—for a choice, for a love, for a different future —suffuses Maryanne O’Hara’s atmospheric, accomplished, first novel, the sweeping story of a young woman’s struggle to define herself in 1930s Massachusetts.”
—Janice Y. K. Lee, New York Times bestselling author of The Piano Teacher
“Set in the Great Depression, and tracing the struggle of one woman to make her own choices, Cascade is a rich and absorbing novel for our time. Maryanne O’Hara tells the rare story of a woman, not a man, fueled by ambition, who is prepared to sacrifice everything, including love, for her passion to create art.”
—Lily King, author of The English Teacher, The Pleasing Hour, and winner of the New England Book Award for Fiction for Father of the Rain
Galley Talk: Publisher’s Weekly
Maryanne O’Hara’s Cascade (Viking, Aug.) is a tightly woven story about the choices a young woman makes and the far-reaching consequences of those decisions. The story begins in Cascade, a small Massachusetts town that’s being considered as the site for a reservoir, necessitated by Boston’s need for water. The year is 1935 and across America the Depression retains a hold on its citizenry. These issues coupled with a young woman coming-of-age form the plot’s triangle. Desdemona Hart Spaulding is an aspiring artist whose story, like the postcards she paints and the Shakespearean plays her father loved, is complicated. The swirling eddy of human feeling—humor, sadness, betrayal, infidelity, love, ambition, and duplicity—are all well represented and compel the reader to understand and not judge as Dez follows her heart and her art. With an artist’s eye, O’Hara has vividly captured the conflicting emotions that churn behind the human face.—Kathleen “Totsie” McGonagle, Buttonwood Books & Toys, Cohasset, Mass.
In the 1930s, four central Massachusetts towns were flooded to create Quabbin Reservoir as a water source for Boston. In this satisfying new novel set at that time, the fictional town of Cascade is about to be swallowed up by a new reservoir. Desdemona (Dez) Spaulding is an aspiring artist who lives in Cascade with her pharmacist husband, Asa. Her late father owned a small but well-regarded Shakespeare theater in the town. Dez is desperate to save her father’s playhouse and also torn by her attraction to a visiting artist, Jacob Solomon. When Dez makes a name for herself at a major magazine with a series of painted postcards that portray the upcoming flooding of Cascade, her small-town life starts to unravel. While not a Shakespearean tragedy, this debut offers a rueful look at the surprising twists and turns life can take. VERDICT O’Hara deftly combines several different themes into a cohesive novel about love, ambition, loyalty, and betrayal, with an ironic twist at the end.—Leslie Patterson, Rehoboth, MA
Bookviews by Alan Caruba
Another Viking novel just out this month is also well worth reading. It’s Maryanne O’Hara’s Cascade ($25.95) and it is an excellent debut. It is 1935 in Cascade, Massachusetts where Desdemona Hart Spaulding has had to trade in her art school training and dreams of moving to New York to pursue a career. Her ailing, bankrupt father dies. She is married to Asa Spaulding and stands to lose her father’s legacy, the Shakespeare Playhouse, as the Massachusetts Water Board decides to turn Cascade into a reservoir. Everything she has or wanted is being lost to her. In the midst of this, Jacob Solomon, a fellow artist arrives. I won’t give away the twists and turns of this story, but it is filled with nuance and insight, emotion and determination.
Reading the Past by Sarah Johnson
Have I mentioned the number of standout debut historicals appearing this August? Maryanne O’Hara’s Cascade can be added to this growing list. Set primarily in small-town New England during the 1930s, it tells a gripping story about art; the impermanence of earthly things; and the importance, nonetheless, of creating a meaningful, memorable life.
There is a sense of carpe diem from the outset: the author establishes her characters and premise within the first few pages. By late 1934, the heyday of Cascade, Massachusetts, has passed. Formerly a classy summer resort town whose Shakespeare theater attracted Hollywood’s brightest stars, it has fallen victim to the Depression. The crowds have dispersed, having moved on to Lenox in the Berkshires, and rumors spread that Cascade may be flooded to create a water source for distant Boston.
Desdemona Hart Spaulding, an up-and-coming artist who had studied in Boston and Paris, was forced to return to Cascade when her family’s fortunes vanished. She has married dull but reliable Asa, a man desperate to have children, to provide her and her ailing father with a place to live. Dez passes her time in a state of numbing sameness: cooking Asa’s meals, dreaming about reopening her father’s playhouse, and reminiscing about the past while secretly tracking her fertile days to avoid getting pregnant. Like her art-school friend Abby advises her, “No babies means you can leave.”
Her father dies months into her marriage, leaving Dez feeling desolate and stuck… until Jacob Solomon, a traveling salesman, starts stopping by to chat. Jacob is a fellow artist for whom Dez feels an instant attraction, but Asa doesn’t like him hanging around his wife.
The cast has been assembled; the scene is set. From this initial arrangement, one might expect a classic love triangle to play out amidst village drama. There is some of that, but it doesn’t take into account the complexity of these characters – Dez in particular. She is hardly faultless (Jacob is Jewish, and despite their growing closeness, she doesn’t show much interest in his religion) but her desire to escape and join the New York art scene is palpable, especially knowing the roadblocks she faces.
Happily, Cascade doesn’t follow a predictable route. The plot moves with the authenticity of real life. Big cities have a habit of muscling in on the affairs of smaller places – this is universal – and when a Massachusetts Water Authority representative arrives to scope out Cascade for a possible reservoir site, tensions rise, and its residents start feeling the reverberations of anti-Semitism as it spreads throughout Europe and America. Dez’s talent gets noticed in a big way, too, leaving her with a moral dilemma. (Not a spoiler; the jacket blurb reveals more than this.)
The 1930s ambiance is re-created perfectly, with its drugstore soda fountain, nosy phone operators, pin-curl hairstyles, and the stifling environment for women who resist the wifely ideal. Dez knows she couldn’t obtain a divorce without Asa’s permission.
O’Hara’s prose has a beautiful melancholy air:
Their once-fashionable resort town with its pleasant waters was looking more and more like the ghost valley that was invading dreams and even the pages of her sketchpad. She had done half a dozen studies: the drowning person’s blurred upward view from the bottom of a flooded place. The bleary, uncertain light. The smooth stones, long grasses, and someone struggling through thick river mud, Ophelia-like, trying to find a place to breathe.
Dez’s nostalgia for a bygone era vies with her strong desire for independence. When she finds a way of combining both with her paintings, the story truly begins to soar.
Cascade is framed around a historical incident, which lends it even more poignancy. When the Quabbin Reservoir was created in the 1930s, several central Massachusetts towns were disincorporated and flooded. For those people who can’t ever go home again, art and memory take on a critical significance – one of many themes explored in this excellent first novel.
Cascade is published by Viking in hardback on August 20th ($25.95 or $27.50 in Canada, 353pp). If the novel sounds like it might intrigue you, take a look at the trailer for Cascade. It’s among the best I’ve seen, combining images from the plot with an on-site author interview.