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Characters in ‘Cascade’ forced to make hard choices

Maryanne O’Hara set her novel in the 1930s, a time when small towns were flooded to create the Quabbin Reservoir.

Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

Maryanne O’Hara set her novel in the 1930s, a time when small towns were flooded to create the Quabbin Reservoir.

“I didn’t set out to create a flawed character,’’ novelist Maryanne O’Hara said of the protagonist in her novel “Cascade.” “But in creating a female character who puts her art and ambition so totally and intensely above all relationships, she is inevitably going to be seen that way by some.”

O’Hara, raised in Ashland, set her debut novel in the fictitious town of Cascade, west of Boston, during the 1930s. The story is built around a real historical event — the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir — and the social upheaval in the region and the world at that time. But O’Hara feels she has created a female character who is timeless and could easily exist today.

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“It is a book about human beings making hard choices and doing so in a time period where countries were also making hard choices,’’ she said.

Looking at it psychologically, as I’m inclined to do, the heart of the novel is the notion that making choices is what makes us uniquely complex and human, and it’s easy to feel conflicted between doing what is “right” and doing what is right for us.

The main character is Desdemona Hart Spaulding, who studied art in Paris and Boston before returning to Cascade to care for her dying father. Dez, as she is known, marries a reliable man in order to put a roof over her father’s head and preserve his legacy, the local Shakespeare Theater.

Soon, she finds herself in a stifling marriage with a man begging her to settle for a life of tradition and security. Escaping to her art studio helps, but she craves much more.

One day a Jewish traveling salesman and fellow artist named Jacob Solomon appears at her doorstep and kindles excitement within her and ambitions for an artist’s life in New York.

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Amid the turmoil of the Great Depression, the anticipated flooding of a once-lovely resort town, and the rise of Nazi Germany and anti-Semitism, Dez is forced to make life-altering choices that could destroy her security and future, much the way Cascade itself will soon be destroyed to make way for the reservoir.

“When I wrote about this character, I really wanted to give women a lot to talk about,” O’Hara told me.

“Some women will see Desdemona as selfish and self-serving from page one, and yet others will say Dez truly understood that she made a bargain with her husband and really doesn’t want to betray him and fail to live up to her marriage vows,’’ she said.

“Basically, Dez wants to be free to paint. But we also live in a society that is primarily monagamous, and she also wants Jacob Solomon; and many will feel it is wrong for Dez to follow her impulses. . . .

“In writing ‘Cascade,’ I wanted women to freely examine what constitutes a ‘right’ choice and who gets to decide what that right choice is. Isn’t this something everyone should be able to determine for themself?” she asked.

At a recent book club appeareance, O’Hara recalled, a few women said they couldn’t enjoy the book because it “offended” them as soon as Dez went down the path of adultery, regardless of her circumstances.

However, at a more recent speaking engagement arranged by Westwinds Bookshop of Duxbury and the Duxbury Free Library, another reader viewed the main character quite differently.

“I really liked this character a lot . . . I felt she was talented, intelligent, but born in an era that didn’t support her,” Duxbury resident MaryEllen Fitzgerald said after the speech.

Fitzgerald, a pediatric nutritionist and mother of two, said that “while I might have wished that Dez had the option of divorce, the affair truly made her seem human in that she gave in to the desire.

“Yet in truth, I wasn’t even totally convinced it was Jacob she wanted. I think he was a kindred spirit who understood her need to create, and that there was a confusion in her passions.”

Fitzgerald added: “If Dez were born today, she wouldn’t have to deal with the stigma of divorce or strong ambition. And ironically, I doubt any talented male artist would ever be considered flawed on either dimension.”

From my perspective as a psychologist, I believe Fitzgerald is correct in saying that a woman who strays is almost univerally judged more harshly than a man.

But affairs exist because they serve a psychological function. A common myth is that women stray because of sexual boredom, curiosity, or deprivation. More often, however, it’s due to marital loneliness or lack of affection or support from a spouse. And in some cases, a woman needs an exit strategy out of a bad marriage but doesn’t have the courage to leave, and needs someone to move toward. In Dez’s case, I would suggest the latter motives are present.

O’Hara, a successful short-story writer and the mother of one grown daughter, contemplated the character of Dez as early as 2001, when she saw an exhibit called “A Studio of Her Own,” which displayed women artists in Boston through 1940.

Following up with years of research, O’Hara sought to accurately re-create the ambience of the 1930s, and the environment that did not support women turning their backs on the wifely ideal.

As O’Hara puts it: “Dez is faced with a choice of whether she will settle for a life of tradition and security, or will she heed the call of her art, and yield to the desire to create work that is everlasting?”

But she’s quick to remind us: “ ‘Cascade’ was written as a novel both men and women can relate to, because it is simply about individuals in great flux, making hard choices, trying to find a life that fulfills them, and doing so in a time period where our towns and country were similarly hard-pressed to make difficult choices.”

Nancy Harris, a practicing clinical psychologist, can be reached at dr.nancy23@ gmail.com.

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