The small town of Cascade in 1930s New England has to face this reality as it lives under the threat of destruction by the waters of the Cascade river, due to be dammed to form a reservoir to add to the region’s water supply. It is against this backdrop that O’Hara introduces Desdemona Hart Spaulding, a woman whose life is as tied to the myriad of currents flowing through the novel as Cascade is to the course of the river that threatens its survival. A talented artist with immense potential, Desdemona is drowning in a marriage made of convenience to save her dying father’s legacy, the town Playhouse. Without her solid, conventional husband Asa Spaulding’s money, the Playhouse would have been lost along with her father’s other assets. Having saved it, both the Playhouse and Desdemona belong to Asa, a reflection of the restrictions placed on a woman living in America in the 1930s. While Desdemona is losing herself gradually beneath the drip-feed of her marriage, a raging torrent threatens to sweep her away in the form of Jacob Solomon, a Jewish artist and travelling salesman who arrives in her life carrying inspiration and hope that she could free herself from the undertow that threatens to pull her beneath the surface of this small town world. Against the subtle political backdrop of the European persecution of the Jews, Jacob stands as an outsider in the small-minded world of a 1930s town that lacks the cosmopolitan edge of the city that Desdemona longs to dive into. Through ‘Cascade’ flows the story of Desdemona’s search for independence and artistic credibility in a bygone age.
‘Cascade’ is a quietly interesting tale. It is not high literary fiction but beautifully accessible characterisation and prose. O’Hara created characters that have stayed with me beyond the last page. None of them were highly complex but that is not a criticism – it is exactly their simplicity that brought them to life. They were far from uni-dimensional but O’Hara refrained from over-writing them and so peopled the novel with individuals that were believable rather than an exercise in literary layering. There were no devils in this book – it was refreshing to read a novel where it was easy to like the characters, whose flaws were recognisable as those you encounter in everyday life rather than dramatic, extreme failings. The historical representation of America in 1930s, whilst interesting, was not the dominating factor in this novel, which won me over much more on the level of individual characters than any statement it made about society at the time.
Overall, ‘Cascade’ is an easy read with a serious edge without driving its point home too hard. With likeable, memorable characters and set in a bygone era, it’s a good solid read.