Review: Cascade by Maryanne O’Hara

24th May 2013

pg1*This book was sent to me by the publisher Penguin in exchange for an honest review in coordination with Historical Fiction Virtual Author Tours.

In 1934, Cascade, Massachusetts holds tight to its vestiges of glamour. Once the place of a thriving Shakespearean theater where a young Rudolph Valentino graced the stage, the Crash has tarnished the appearance of the once-glitzy resort town.

Desdamona Hart Spaulding, the daughter of the theater’s owner, has left her dreams of a career in art and returned to care for her ailing and bankrupt father, marrying a local who has loved her for quite some time, Asa, in a move she quickly regrets. Once her father dies, Dez realizes just how provincial her life in Cascade will remain, particularly with the theater languishing and the town facing flooding to create a new reservoir.

When Jacob Solomon first appears on her property, commenting on Dez’s painting, Dez recognizes a kindred spirit, and her desire to be free takes over.

Charlie mentions in her review that the word “cascade” refers not only to the falls for which the town is named but also for the overwhelming emotion Dez experiences throughout the novel, and I think that’s apt. Jacob and his weekly meetings with her energize Dez. The two talk about art and artists, techniques and tools, the time flying by. She begins to romanticize their encounters until she obsesses over his visits.

Dez talks quite a bit about responsibility – her responsibility as a wife, a daughter, a citizen of Cascade – but ultimately, what wins out is her responsibility to her art. It’s a bold decision, as Dez leaves a good man, a man who cares for her, in order to pursue this life. O’Hara doesn’t help Dez either, making Asa out to be a hillbilly or a cad. Instead, he’s a stand-up guy and one that, even as you know it’s right for Dez to leave, you hurt for.

Though Jacob Solomon is ostensibly who Dez loves, I did feel that he’s just a means to an end. Dez wants to leave Asa and Cascade but cannot seem to leave just to paint and live in New York without something else propelling her forward. In fact, my one complaint would be that I wish Dez would have been able to acknowledge that. There was nothing to Jacob and Dez’s relationship that felt concrete or significant enough to have haunted her for as long as it does.

In some ways, Cascade reminded me of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub – the theater, the doting father, the failing marriage. Plus, both are interesting examinations of women who make nontraditional choices in order to forge a life for themselves.

Dez is selfish, but I think O’Hara explores the negative connotation of that word quite well. Dez sacrifices her marriage, her father’s legacy, and, though it isn’t all down to her, the fate of her town for her own gain. And if asked, I doubt she’d regret it.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

  • I won this one from Jennifer over at The Relentless Reader, and I can’t wait to receive it and dive in.

    • It’s a really absorbing read.

    • Maryanne OHara

      Thank you! I hope you enjoy it!

  • Maryanne OHara

    Thanks so much for taking the time to write this review of my book! You gave me some things to think about. In my mind, Jacob was a necessary muse…

    • You’re most welcome!

      I think Jacob was necessary. I just didn’t feel he was the lifelong love Dez seemed to. But that’s outside looking in. Maybe for her it didn’t matter that she didn’t know him all that well.

      • Maryanne OHara

        That’s what I meant.. I think you got what he was to her. A muse, a place to put her passion. The reality was that she “might have been feeding a fantasy.”

        Anyway, very fun to see your back and forth with Audra. It’s nice to get a glimpse of that, as an author. Reminds me of the time Margot Livesey came to my book club and we forgot she was there, at the end of the table, as we shouted and argued back and forth across the table. She graciously later wrote, “It’s really a writer’s dream to have an evening where intelligent, eloquent, thoughtful readers debate one’s work, over delicious food, with such generosity and insight and vigour.”

        Thank you!

  • So glad you read this — as you may remember, I adored this one — partially for the incredibly complicated set up for Dez — as you said, no easy caricatures or outs. I must say, your comment “Though Jacob Solomon is ostensibly who Dez loves, I did feel that he’s just a means to an end.” totally rocked me — I hadn’t thought of it that way, but in some ways, I can absolutely see that. Esp at the end, despite the pull, there’s some bittersweet distance between the two of them that makes me suspect Jacob was a catalyst to her bolting — much as her father’s illness was the catalyst for her staying.

    • I do remember!

      And that’s a perfect, perfect way to describe it re: her father’s illness bringing her to Cascade and Jacob making her realize she has to leave. Interesting that I didn’t make that connection…

      • I leaped out at me in a way that reminded me a little bit of Alice I Have Been — not that the circumstances are at all that similar — but that there is, very often in historical situations, otherwise strong independent women who suffer at the decisions of the men in their life — or worse, have to live with the ramifications of what men decide. In this case, I think Dez has more agency than Alice had in AIHB, but one wonders if Jacob hadn’t showed up in Dez’s life, if being pressured abt having babies would have been the catalyst to her leaving, or the allure of another fling…or would she just have left anyway…?

        • It’s almost always easier to stay…

          Leaving is tough, so much more so when the major social mores and expectations of the time are hemming her in. I don’t know that she would have left, which is why I think she makes more of Jacob than what he really is. I never got the sense that they were oh so in love. But he definitely gets her out of there (though, of course, the idea of him gets her out, not the actual person…telling).

          • Oh yes, inertia (and fear, etc) so much easier to succumb to than the exertion needed to leave. It’s why I found Dez admirable, in a way, why I liked her — once she got out, she got out in such a big way. It made me wonder about her eventual marriage, though, if she was happy or again letting inertia/ease etc propel her. It’s been so long now I can’t remember how O’Hara wrote about that bit so perhaps Dez says pointedly one way or the other…

          • It’s not really specifically addressed, but I got the impression the marriage was more convenience and mutual respect than anything (which, at this point in singledom, I’d gladly take). They seem to live separate lives but genuinely care for one another as well.

            And yes, I did find her admirable. It’s easy to dislike a character like Dez because, as I said, she is selfish. But I truly believe that to be successful – really successful – there is always an element of selfishness.

            I guess, to be honest, I’m a bit jealous of Dez. Like you say, she gets out in a big way, and I can’t imagine any of it was easy.

          • And honestly, in her circumstances, like/mutual respect is huge — esp as she wanted to remain an artist. That I can appreciate as well — and in some ways, I never got the sense that Dez felt unloved — and while I think she mourned never having a chance to be with Jacob, I kind of felt her longing for Jacob was a bit of a, I don’t know, the kind of romantic, unattainable dreaminess her father nurtured for his theater. Chasing, never capturing…

          • Agreed. I especially liked that the theater reopening was a nice side benefit but that she wasn’t completely invested in it. It wasn’t her dream. And when she discovers what she does about her father, she’s able to look at him and his acts more objectively because she isn’t so wrapped up in preserving something in which she isn’t completely invested.

  • Jennifer Hartling

    I was so pleased with this book. Love your insight about Jacob. He was the push that Dez needed perhaps? Maybe anyone would have fit the bill at that point in her life 😉

  • I’ve heard good things all around about this book!

  • Hm. I’m intrigued by the concept, but I’m not sure. I have to admit the writing style of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures didn’t work for me.

  • lulu_bella

    I have never seen a book cover that made me want to own a book more than this one. I just think it’s so beautiful. I’m going to get it, especially since some people I trust really liked it.

  • Charlie

    I think what sealed the ‘cascade’ idea for me was the cover. At first it looks nice, weird perhaps, but when you think of the emotions and that the visual is of falls against her head… of course you can’t say for certain, but it just seems that’s what O’Hara had in mind. I love what you’ve said about the responsibility towards art. I hadn’t thought about it like that, nor Jacob (though I’d agree she should have put art first every time) but it’s what she loves and where her feelings lie.

  • I haven’t read Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures yet, but finally got to Cascade recently and posted my review today. Linking up to yours and Audra’s now!

    • Thanks, Laurie!