Set in the 1930s during the time of the Great Depression in America, this novel recounts the story of Desdemona 'Dez' Hart Spaulding. As the novel opens and we meet Dez, the reader quickly learns that her father William Hart, up until recently the owner of the playhouse in Cascade, Massachusetts, is seriously ill and that Dez, a talented artist who has studied in Paris, gave up on her dreams of working in New York City in order to return home and look after him. Like so many others at that time, his financial fortunes took a serious downturn and he lost his property and was to all intents and purposes bankrupt. Dez is forced to admit that she married her pharmacist husband Asa more out of a feeling of responsibility than out of any strength of love for him, something that is underlined for her when she meets fellow artist Jacob Solomon and immediately feels a very different connection with him. Her father's dying wish is for Dez to save and one day reopen the theatre in Cascade, and he entrusts her with a special box only to be opened on this eventual future date. The future of the town of Cascade itself is under serious threat, with plans to flood it and create a reservoir for Boston.
Maryanne O'Hara carefully establishes a connection between Dez and the reader earlier on, and draws us in to care about her, and also to care about and feel connected to the once-vibrant town of Cascade itself; the town felt to me like a character in its own right. Through the eyes of her friend Abby, who is visiting the place briefly, Dez sees a different version of the town, realising how it must look now to an outsider:
'..now Dez felt its smallness, its loss of its old glamour...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.'
Within the town, the playhouse is a symbolic building, built by her father and meaning so much to Dez, and we learn of its grand past, home to Shakespearean performances. The period detail rang true through the author's descriptions, but the historical aspect and setting never becomes heavy or overbearing in the story. As well as the Depression era in America, the ever worsening news that filters through from Europe adds another imposing backdrop to the tale. It was enjoyable reading an historical novel set in this period and location.
Cascade is a moving debut novel about a woman and her emotions and dreams; a woman trying to maintain her loyalties and responsibilties but fearing that this is at the expense of her career, at a time when certain expectations were still firmly placed upon women by society. It is about the feeling of being in a quandary between accepting what you have and chasing after what you desire, and it is about art and about change. I enjoyed reading this book, the author has a pleasing style and brings a fresh perspective to eternal themes. I will be interested to discover what Maryanne O'Hara will write next.
Published by Penguin Books