Reviewed by June J. McInerney
If “a picture is worth a thousand words,” then a thousand words in Cascade (April 2013) by Maryanne O’Hara easily paints a vivid picture. By using straightforward, linearly descriptive writing, this author creatively uses words to paint a colorful portrait of not only a small town facing destruction but of a painter, Desdemona Hart Spaulding (“Dez”), who, torn between her art and family loyalties, makes unheeding, inappropriate decisions that compel her to compromise her talent and to betray herself, her husband, and their community.
Set in the fictional town of Cascade, Massachusetts in the middle of the Great Depression, this clean, crisp, refreshing first novel is a vibrant rendition of a small town facing destruction when it is designated as the flooding site for a reservoir that is to provide water for the burgeoning city of Boston. Among the buildings that risk demolition is the famous Cascade Shakespeare Theatre, built by Desdemona’s father before the turn of the century. Before he dies, she promises him that she will save his precious legacy from ultimate destruction. But how can she, when everything is slated to be flooded into inevitable oblivion?
Many motifs and subplot lines are interwoven into this one woman’s struggle to find her true worth and identity amidst impending doom and deception. Desdemona, aptly named after the maligned character in Shakespeare’s Othello who is falsely accused and betrayed by Iago, is a paradoxical protagonist who sells herself short; mistakenly misinterprets the well-meaning intentions of others; misreads her husband’s actions; and, by seemingly meaningless and unmindful acts, inadvertently betrays him. Failing to act morally, she deceives the townspeople by letting them believe that her series of “post card” drawings published in a magazine are intended to save the town, when she is only seeking artistic self-aggrandizement. She falls prey to her own desires for “true, lasting love” by committing adultery with a Jewish dry goods salesman who is, in turn, falsely accused by bigots of murder. She even cons friends into believing she is sincere, when all she seeks is fulfillment of herself as an artist whose works will last long after she is gone.
In the middle of this finely written word painting, I wanted to shake Dez by her shoulders—to make her realize that she, like the man-made flood, was destroying her home town, her own life, and the lives of everyone around her. But O’Hara is a skillful writer who obviously knows that the main character in a good novel is almost always redeemed. She eventually does “save” Dez from herself, but only with wry, ironic, almost satirical, twists of fate in the finally crafted denouement—worthy of Shakespeare—when Desdemona finally does come to her senses
Cascade, with a metaphoric cover and soft illustrations that precede each section, is a literary work of art. Young adults as well as mature readers will thoroughly enjoy this richly endowed prophetic and symbolic novel that poses the eternal question: Which lasts through the ages: progeny, art, or both? O’Hara admiringly attempts to answer the question in an enthrallingly stunning way that ensures her writing career will surely last for many years to come.
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