1935: Desdemona Hart Spaulding was an up-and-coming Boston artist when she married in haste and settled in the small, once-fashionable theater town of Cascade to provide a home for her dying father. Now Cascade is on the short list to be flooded to provide water for Boston, and Dez’s discontent is complicated by her growing attraction to a fellow artist. When tragic events unfold, Dez is forced to make difficult choices. Must she keep her promises? Is it morally possible to set herself free?
Fans of Richard Russo, Amor Towles, Sebastian Barry, and Paula McLain will devour this transporting novel about the eternal tug between our duties and our desires, set within the context of the Depression, NYC during Roosevelt’s New Deal era, and the approaching World War.
I went into Cascade prepared to like it. I’m attracted to stories about small towns, about the lives of artists, and about such historically significant periods as The Great Depression. Cascade boasts all of these things, though it did not entirely live up to my expectations. The descriptions of the protagonist’s life as an artist were moving, though pacing problems and characterization left me feeling less-than-thrilled about the book as a whole.
Desdemona (Dez) is a young artist stuck in a loveless marriage to a man she only wed to help her dying father. The Great Depression reduced William Hart — a playmaster — and his daughter to homelessness, and by marrying Asa Spaulding, Dez guaranteed them a home. Thus begins the novel: at her father’s deathbed, barely two months after the wedding.
Dez and Asa have what I would describe as a quietly dysfunctional marriage. Blow-outs are not a regular occurrence; husband and wife are not at each other’s throats — but they fundamentally misunderstand each other. They don’t share any of the same goals or ambitions, and they’re ill-suited to building a life together. The hollowness of their marriage is contrasted with Dez’s relationship with a fellow painter, Jacob Solomon. He and Dez only visit once a week, but they communicate more in a single visit than Dez and Asa manage to share in an entire week.
While it would be easy to cast blame on Asa for failing to give Dez the fulfilling attention and stimulation she finds in Jacob’s company, I found myself more disappointed in Dez than in Asa. He went into the marriage with every intention to build a life with her and make their relationship work. Dez went into it for material reasons, knowing that she had no love for him. It seemed dishonest of her, and I struggled to feel sorry for her subsequent unhappiness.
The novel’s main conflict revolves around Boston’s water shortage. A dam and reservoir need to be built, and to do that one of the towns along the Cascade River must be flooded to make room for the reservoir. It’s a choice between Whistling Falls and Cascade, and the entire town is campaigning to make the axe fall on somebody else’s head.
It sounds exciting, but this book moves at a snail’s pace. The book’s conflict centres around politics, around discussion and a lengthy decision-making process. By the halfway point I was rooting for Cascade to get flooded just so that there would be a little action to read about.
I became pretty annoyed when the book served up a whole page of spoilers for Anna Karenina. Mark Twain once said, “A classic is a book which people praise and don’t read.” I’m one of the people who actually does read classics. I’d planned to see the film adaptation of Anna Karenina and read the book. But why bother now? Dez goes to see a movie, and while she watches she compares the adaptation to the book point-by-point, thereby ruining the classic for anyone who has yet to read it. If you’re one of those people, don’t read page 134.
In the last quarter of the novel the pace picks up. Dez begins to take shape as an independent woman, a celebrated artist in her own rite, and it’s touching to watch her navigate new waters. But while she blossoms, it becomes evident just how much the decisions of the men in her life have stifled the personal development of nearly everyone in the novel. By the end of the book I felt proud of Dez, but extremely disappointed in Asa, her father William, and Jacob. Between small-mindedness, selfishness, and spinelessness these male characters are made almost impossible to like, and it sours the reading experience that they are in no way redeemed by the end of the novel.
The one thing I truly loved about this book, though it only appears after Dez had the opportunity to explore her life and art without restriction, are the descriptions of what it’s like to be consumed by creativity. For each of the paintings that make Dez famous, she enters an emotionally driven fugue-like state, in which nothing else matters until the painting is complete. Anyone with an artist’s soul will be able to relate to that aspect of Cascade.
While this wasn’t the most thrilling or satisfying read for me, I’m sure others will be able to take pleasure in it. The emotional strain the characters endure, narrated at a slow burn, may appeal to those in search of a highly moving, though quiet, tragedy.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via TLC Book Tours: the sky’s the limit, in exchange for an honest review.
Another caveat: While I was reading this book I received a postcard from the author thanking me for being a part of the tour. After a moment of, “Aw, that’s sweet,” came a moment of, “Oh God, she knows where I live.” I promise, I did not allow my paranoia to get in the way of writing an honest review.