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.