Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Cascade by Maryanne O’Hara — 384 pgs

Desdemona Hart Spaulding isn’t where she wants to be. As the wife of a pharmacist who runs his own shop during the late 1930s, Des and her husband are at a crossroads. He wants a wife that cooks, cleans, and bears him children, which is decidedly not what she wants. Des is an artist, and a very good one at that. But her paintings are not enough to hold on to when her husband becomes agitated with Des’ inability to get pregnant. Des has had the forbearance to make sure that never happens. When it becomes local news that the town of Cascade is in danger of being turned into a reservoir for the city of Boston, its little shops and homes flooded, Des dreams of relocating to New York to realize her dreams of being a famous artist. But soon, her friendship with another artist in the town becomes a scandal, and Des begins to make some very disturbing choices that will not only affect her marriage, but also the town where she has lived her entire life. While Des’ husband Asa moves in one direction, Des decides to go in another, forcing her to become not only duplicitous, but deceiving as well. In this pristinely written and very complex novel, the fate of a town and a marriage come down to the machinations of one woman who is desperate to be free, no matter the cost.

Reading this book was like looking at a watercolor painting, and I’m sure that this is what the author intended, as a large part of the narrative was given over to the nature and descriptions of art. This, to me, meant that large parts of the narrative had a soft and contemporary feel while still being set in the past and focusing almost exclusively on Des as an artist. Many of her works were explained in the book, and it was almost as if O’Hara had these paintings that Des was creating firmly fixed in her mind. The effect was one of blending art with a very complex and personal narrative, written with a mild yet somehow searing tone.

I really understood Des and her struggles. Because O’Hara gives so much attention to detail with her characters, there was little that wasn’t explained regarding her feelings of living a small town life, and an incompatible marriage. The choice to marry Asa was undoubtedly clear to the reader but the repercussions had a strangling effect on the entire community. Des, at times, may have been a little ethically challenged; however, I understood her and her wishes. It wasn’t her morality that was in question, but her desire and her unmitigated need to assert herself and attain the life that she knew she was meant for. Unfortunately, she caused a lot of collateral damage by doing these things.

The main thrust of this book were the themes of longing and self-actualization, blended within a framework of art, both on the canvas and in the theater. When I step back and see just what O’Hara was trying to communicate to the reader, I’m filled with a sense of bittersweet irony, because for one woman to go against the tide during this time period meant not only that this was a decidedly feminist novel, but also a novel that sought to explore the ways that the heart can be selfish and selfless at the same time.

I think those readers who enjoy character driven novels with a strong plot would love this book. It’s full of things to discuss and ponder, making it a great choice for book clubs, but it’s also one to read when you just want to curl up with a creative drama that’s gentle but firm. I’m sure that I’ll see more as I reflect further, just as O’Hara intends. A genuinely satisfying read that holds secrets, regrets, and unexpected joys. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
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