I’d anticipated reading Cascade, because its central action is a source of sad fascination: the deliberate flooding of several small towns in central Massachusetts to create the Quabbin Reservoir for Boston’s water supply. There are poignant traces of the towns to be found around the reservoir, which was constructed in the 1930s. My sister, who’s visited the site several times, has found markers laid out to recall neighborhoods, and evidence of the reunions that townspeople, and their descendants, still hold.
With such a subject, I thought that Maryanne O’Hara’s debut novel might examine the emotional upheaval of some of the townspeople who lose not just their homes, but their communities. But that’s not her intent. She places her main character, Desdemona Hart, in the midst of this historic action, but Dez is not really of her little doomed town, but rather a detached observer of it—and one who is plotting her escape. Current circumstances have made Cascade Dez’s home, but she dreams of New York and a career as a painter.
Some of the early chapters, rich with the particular details of Dez’s daily life—from making meringues to capturing an idea on canvas—were beautifully written. But I felt that the novel lost focus as it moved along, the characters’ actions didn’t always feel consistent (or justified), and my attention drifted. Some of the later chapters felt more like synopses or epilogues than part of a single narrative arc. It’s almost as if O’Hara envisioned a much larger work, with all sorts of moving parts—women as artists, murder mystery, anti-Antisemitism, family secrets—but then had to bring all of the pieces together too quickly.
So while Dez does follow her dreams, I wasn’t able to follow along with her as much as I’d hoped to. A bit of a disappointment.
Certainly there are still opportunities for other novelists to more fully explore the personal tragedies, and perhaps even triumphs, associated with the strange fate of several little Massachusetts towns that were swept away to make a reservoir.