Book review: ‘Cascade’ by Maryanne O’Hara

CascadeI have to sort out my feelings on this.

Maryanne O’Hara’s Cascade has been on my radar since I caught a glimpse of its gorgeous cover last summer, and Audra’s review tipped this into “book lust” category. Why it took me another nine months to read it? Honestly, I don’t know.

But since finishing Cascade early Sunday morning, it’s been lingering behind my eyelids. I read the last 100 pages in a sitting, almost breathless to discover what would become of star-crossed Desdemona, but felt something akin to grief upon finishing O’Hara’s captivating story.

I didn’t want to say goodbye.

Sometimes books speak to us — uniquely, exclusively. The elements of a particular story combine to seem formed just for you . . . and so it was with Cascade. I should preface my review by acknowledging my deep, overwhelming fear of water. Of drowning. Of being pulled under. The idea of an entire town being purposely dismantled and flooded to form a reservoir — of a place that once existed but has since been razed, morphed into a lake — is both fascinating and horrifying.

Cascade, Massachusetts is the kind of quintessential New England town you’d imagine Norman Rockwell’s subjects to inhabit. It’s idyllic and quaint, filled with friends and gossips — a place where everyone truly knows your name. Desdemona “Dez” Hart Spaulding grew up here, buried her mother and brother here, and shelved her dreams of art and New York to provide for her father in the last months of his life. Broke and facing homelessness, Dez agrees to marry Asa Spaulding, a goodhearted pharmacist, so William Hart will be safe in his final days. She’s so absurdly grateful for a roof over her head that she never hesitates to bind her life to Asa’s.

It’s the 1930s. The Great Depression. After the Roaring Twenties, after the Great War changed everything. As news of dust storms blotting out the sun clutter newsreels and bread lines curve around buildings, Dez knows she should be content — grateful — for the relatively comfortable life she shares with Asa. But after her father’s death, a feeling like claustrophobia pushes the air from her lungs.

And things are heating up in town. Long rumored but never made official, word is spreading that the state is finally ready to build a new reservoir for Boston. With its proximity to water and the city, Cascade seems the ideal choice. When Massachusetts sends out Stan Smith, a portly worker for the Water Authority, gossip and worry seep into the town’s very pores. Dez befriends Stan after he stops into her husband’s pharmacy, trying to glean information or a shred of hope for Cascade’s future, but the flood waters already seem to inch around the town. If chosen, Cascade faces imminent ruin. Complete demolition. To be filled until nothing remains.

In that atmosphere of uncertainty, a friendship between Desdemona and Jacob Solomon begins to blossom. A Jewish peddler carrying on his father’s traditions, Jacob also has artistic ambitions — and finds a kindred spirit in Dez, the savvy and creative daughter of a play master. With an appreciation for Shakespeare thanks to her father, Dez is worldly and interesting and nothing like most of the folks in Cascade: a group typically content to drink their root bear floats at Asa’s soda fountain and malign Jacob’s good name because he’s “one of them.”

With tensions brewing in Europe and in New England, Dez is faced with an earth rapidly shifting beneath her feet. And it’s time to make a move.

Reading Cascade was such a lush, complicated experience. My description doesn’t do justice to half the threads weaving O’Hara’s moving novel together — but a girl has to try. Of the many elements happening in one 350-page book, the connection brewing between Dez and Jacob captivated me completely. My heart literally ached reading about their friendship, however brief, and the story’s progression found me desperately hoping for something I knew could never be. Without giving anything way, I felt splintered by the novel’s close. Just splintered. Gut-punched.

And that’s the mark of a great story.

And this was a great story . . . the first 5-star book I’ve read in almost a year. A wholly unique tale. One with which I sympathized, and empathized, and became completely swept inside. Between its mirroring of Shakespearean classics and historical tidbits of life just before Pearl Harbor, O’Hara does a masterful job of portraying a town facing imminent destruction just as millions face a gruesome end in Europe. The distrust of the Jewish population — and of Jacob — was devastating, and made me thankful for the intervening years since World War II.

Just as interesting was the art scene — a vivid world portrayed through Dez’s work and connections. New York seemed a wholly familiar and unfamiliar place through O’Hara’s pen: a world I know but do not know. I loved the descriptions of Dez’s paintings and plans, and the light-filled studio rooms in which she would recreate safe spaces. It was romantic and lovely. And the overarching theme — “nothing gold can stay,” if you will, or nothing and no one lasts forever — made me sad and reflective but ultimately . . . hopeful? Yes. Hopeful.

There’s so much I want to talk about, but so much I cannot talk about. This is a story you need to experience and devour yourself. Though it took me 80 pages or so to become fully invested in Cascade’s future, I feel changed as a reader for having read this book. It was magnificent. There aren’t too many novels I’d herald as “a triumph,” the hyperbole of that making me squint, but seriously: Cascade is phenomenal. It touched me. It made me cry. It broke my heart. It raised so many questions.

I absolutely loved it, and it’s time to discover it for yourself.


5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0143123513 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
in exchange for my honest review


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6 thoughts on “Book review: ‘Cascade’ by Maryanne O’Hara

  1. WOW. I can feel the love radiating off this review. I have heard nothing about it! I’m off to investigate.

  2. I’ve got this to read next and looking forward to it a lot. I don’t think I’ve read a bad review yet, and reading this has made me want to combat my focus issue (started it last week but the pdf is difficult to read on my ereader).

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