It’s the height of the Great Depression in Cascade, Massachusetts. Desdemona Hart’s aging father has lost everything but his treasured, now-shuttered Shakespeare Theatre. To put a roof over his head, Dez marries Asa Spaulding, the local pharmacist. Just out of art school, Dez must put aside her dreams of working in New York City and become a supportive wife,
It’s the height of the Great Depression in Cascade, Massachusetts. Desdemona Hart’s aging father has lost everything but his treasured, now-shuttered Shakespeare Theatre. To put a roof over his head, Dez marries Asa Spaulding, the local pharmacist. Just out of art school, Dez must put aside her dreams of working in New York City and become a supportive wife, daughter, and—if Asa has his way—mother. When her father dies just two months later and deeds the playhouse to Asa, Dez realizes the extent of her mistake. She’s staring down a lifetime with a man she respects but doesn’t love, yet she can’t leave him without abandoning her father’s legacy.
At the same time, their valley hometown is under threat by the state government, which wants to build a new reservoir to serve Boston. If the surveyors choose Cascade, they will flood the entire area, destroy the beloved playhouse, and force a mass relocation of all of its residents.
Amid this turmoil, Dez meets Jacob Solomon, a Jewish artist to whom she immediately feels a connection. To most of the town, he’s an outsider who elicits anti-Semitic feelings, but for Dez he represents the creative, cosmopolitan world that should have been hers. As their relationship grows, Jacob inspires her to renew her artistic dreams while igniting a romantic passion that alarms her. As the decision about Cascade’s future looms, Dez must weigh her own desires against her husband’s—and society’s—expectations.
A new opportunity comes when Dez’s idea for a series of drawings about Cascade’s fight for survival is picked up by the national American Sunday Standard magazine, and she suddenly becomes a household name. New York City and a life with Jacob seem more possible than ever—until a man is found dead, and Jacob is suspected of foul play. As in her father’s Shakespearean productions, Dez’s choices might have tragic consequences.
Vividly drawn and rich in historical detail, Maryanne O’Hara’s debut novel is a pitch-perfect rendering of life in small-town America in the tumultuous early twentieth century. In Desdemona Hart she has created an unforgettable character whose difficult choices and yearnings for independence will resonate with readers of any era.
“Cascade unfolds like a Shakespearean tragedy, with an ending you won’t see coming…The novel becomes something that you can’t take your eyes from or stop thinking about in wonder.”—Caroline Leavitt, The Boston Globe
“Gorgeously written and involving, Cascade explores the age-old conflict between a woman’s perceived duty and her deepest desires, but in O’Hara’s skilled hands the struggle feels fresh and new.”—People
“I stayed up very late into the night to finish Cascade, captivated by Dez Hart, a woman torn between competing loyalties: her marriage and her freedom, her sense of responsibility and her desire to live an artist’s fiercely disciplined and passionate life. Past and place come alive in this book; these characters are richly drawn and complexly human. Compelling and fascinating, the story unfolds in such unexpected ways, and with such gathering tension, that I couldn’t stop until I’d read the final, beautifully written, line.”—Kim Edwards, New York Times bestselling author of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter and Lake of Dreams
“Maryanne O’Hara weaves as intricate, as theatrical, and as tempestuous a plot as deftly as Prospero. Through the eyes of an artist yearning for a larger life-canvas but constrained by a humdrum marriage in a town careening toward destruction, we see the failings of men and women in their tangled relationships, each member of the cast struggling to find a fulfilling life. Save the town! Save the Shakespearean theater! Save our dreams, we cry out with the players.”—Susan Vreeland, New York Times bestselling author of Girl in Hyacinth Blue and Clara and Mr. Tiffany
Dez married Asa because her father was ill and bankrupt. Were there any other options for a single woman in 1934? What about for Dez specifically? How does the theme of drowning play into the first pages and continue throughout the novel?
This novel is set in the 1930s. How are world events at that time shaping the events in Cascade, both in tangible ways and in broader, less obvious ways?
Dez’s attraction to Jacob is almost immediate. Why was it so easy for their relationship to grow, and how do her feelings evolve over the course of the book?
Cascade is rich with interwoven themes—of history, women’s issues, art, literature, and Americana. Which of these topics interested you most and why?
When Dez was young, she wanted to be a painter like Mary Cassatt, producing artwork of mothers and their children. Why did the idea of birthing, pregnancy, and motherhood become negative for her? Do you agree with her perspective?
When trouble comes to a head in Cascade, Asa and Dez make a deal. How did you feel about this deal? Did Dez’s decisions make you uncomfortable? Why?
In New York, Dez is finally exposed to the bohemian world of artists she’s dreamed of. In what ways does it meet her expectations and in what ways is she disappointed by it?
Why was it important for Dez to use the pseudonym D. H. Spaulding on her important artwork? What other women in history have done (and are still doing) this? Would you have read Cascade differently if the cover had not been so beautiful, adorned with a woman’s head, and if the author’s name had been M. B. O’Hara?
Dez’s father promised that Portia’s casket held something “infinitely worth saving.” Discuss the contents and how human judgment is often flawed. Did your feelings toward William Hart change at the end of the book? How do you think Dez felt?
At its heart, Cascade examines “what is a right choice?” and “who decides what that right choice is?” Discuss.