Lara Kleinschroth's Reviews > Cascade

Cascade by Maryanne O'Hara
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's review
Jun 03, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: first-reads

What drives the artist -- a need to leave something behind, something preserved of one's self, or simply for the fame and fortune in the here and now? Art lives long after the artist has passed on. The central theme to this extraordinary book is expressed by the main character, Desdemona Hart Spaulding: 'We people take up space, and then when we're gone, there's just the space left, and sometimes you can't quite comprehend how that can happen.' This is illustrated on a grand scale, with the flooding of the town of Cascade Massachusetts to create a reservoir for Boston. How does an entire town simply cease to exist? Who will remember -- the river, the library, movie theater, round church, diner, and playhouse, not to mention the people?
Set against the backdrop of 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression and with rumblings of disturbing news from Europe, Cascade explores one woman's search for identity and lasting permanence. Her father has died, her marriage is not ideal, and her town is about to be flooded and obliterated. She has nightmares of drowning, and creates paintings from the point of view of a drowning man's last sight, looking up out of the water. She thinks she finds her answer in a Jewish travelling salesman, but he turns out to be as impermanent as everything else. Dez is an incredibly well-drawn character -- she is so flawed (she falls in love with a Jewish man, but knows nothing of his religion or culture, and makes no attempts to find out), and some of her decisions (or accidental stumblings) start a chain reaction of unravellings you don't think she'll be able to get out of. But she is strong and tenacious.
So many themes and images weave and overlap, yet it never gets messy -- O'Hara ties everything together very neatly. Images of water are everywhere, Shakespeare lives among the pages, and all of it is expressed in Dez's art. And simmering beneath the surface are the brutal realities of the Great Depression and the strengthening of Hitler's power.
Dez eventually learns that there is no permanence, that the only constant is change: '...trying to hold on to things was uncertain. You lost control when you died. You had no idea whether what you cared about would go into a museum or into a rubbish bin.'
For a fascinating trailer of this book (I know! A book trailer -- how awesome is that??), check out the author's website at
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