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.