13 reviews

Cascade: A Novel
by Maryanne O'Hara

Published: 2013-04-30
Paperback : 384 pages
30 members reading this now
6 clubs reading this now
14 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 12 of 13 members
A locked box and a deathbed promise. A town threatened with extinction by flooding.
And a raft of difficult personal decisions.

It's 1935 and Desdemona Hart Spaulding, a gifted, Paris-trained artist, has married in haste, in the once-thriving summer town of Cascade, to provide a home for ...
No other editions available.
Add to Club Selections
Add to Possible Club Selections
Add to My Personal Queue
Jump to


A locked box and a deathbed promise. A town threatened with extinction by flooding.
And a raft of difficult personal decisions.

It's 1935 and Desdemona Hart Spaulding, a gifted, Paris-trained artist, has married in haste, in the once-thriving summer town of Cascade, to provide a home for her dying father and save the family's renowned Shakespeare theater. Now Cascade is on the short list to be flooded to provide drinking water for Boston, MA, and Dez's growing discontent is complicated by her attraction to Jacob, a fellow artist. When tragic events unfold, Dez makes bad choices that force her to answer hard questions: Must she keep her promises? Is it morally possible to set herself free?

"What do we have to give up to be whom we yearn to be?  CASCADE unfolds like a Shakespearean tragedy,with an ending you won't see coming.The Boston Globe

"Gorgeously written and involving, Cascade explores the age-old conflict between a woman's perceived duty and her deepest desires." People Magazine, People Pick

  • The Boston Globe Book Club - Inaugural Pick
  • People Magazine "People Pick of the Week"
  • People Magazine "Great Reads, New in Paperback"
  • MLA "Must Read" Fiction Honors
  • Finalist, Massachusetts Book Award
  • Slate Magazine "Best Books," "Best Summer Reads?
  • WBUR Radio Boston: Good Reads for Summer
  • Boston Globe "Best of the New?
  • Library Journal "Best Bet"

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.


No Excerpt Currently Available

Discussion Questions

From the author:

1. Cascade explores characters who struggle with independence and reconciling their passions with their responsibilities. How did you react to those characters, and why?

2. Cascade evokes America during the 1930s, but explores themes that are timeless. How might the story play out if set in other time periods?

3. Did Dez’s decisions make you uncomfortable? If so, why?

4. A working title for Cascade was “Swift Rising River.” How does that title serve as metaphor for events in the book?

Suggested by Members

The discussion questions in the back of the paperback are VERY good. Often not the case with reading guides.
by Carolino (see profile) 06/29/13

Some people have said they don't
by wordcritter (see profile) 05/11/13

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub


"The protagonist is Desdemona Hart, a woman drowning in the choices she's been forced to make: a marriage of necessity to save her father's legacy and put a roof over his head as he dies......trouble escalates, and so will the rate at which you turn the pages. Cascade is perfect for sitting by the fire on a chilly day contemplating the immutability of things." ----Slate: 2012 Best Books, Staff Picks

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 Magazine, "PEOPLE PICK"

"CASCADE unfolds like a Shakespearean tragedy, with an ending you won't see coming. Much like a drowned town, the novel becomes something that you can't take your eyes from or stop thinking about in wonder."--The Boston Globe

O'Hara deftly combines several different themes into a cohesive novel about love, ambition, loyalty, and betrayal, with an ironic twist at the end. --Library Journal, “Best Bet”

"O'Hara has vividly captured the conflicting emotions that churn behind the human face."

Galley Talk, Publisher's Weekly


A Conversation with Maryanne O’Hara

The setting for Cascade is loosely based on the true story of the Quabbin reservoir, which led to the destruction and flooding of four Massachusetts towns when it was completed in 1939. What aspects of this event were the most compelling for you?

As a child visiting that reservoir, I was haunted by the idea that a government could destroy a place and say it no longer existed, that you would never again be able to mail a letter to Enfield or Greenwich or Prescott. I was also a little bit enraged. Learning about eminent domain was perhaps the beginning of my awakening to the ‘real world’ and social politics. The uncertainty of both the setting and the 1930s time period seemed a fitting backdrop for the story of Dez Spaulding’s personal struggles.

Reflecting her childhood with a theater–owning father, Dez often quotes Shakespeare. How did Shakespeare’s writings influence the narrative?

Shakespeare’s plays are full of truths that speak for everyone—for the wise man and for the wretch, for the evil heart and the noble soul. I had no interest in patterning my plot on any play, but I did want to suffuse the novel with the truths and flavor of Shakespeare, so there are many subtle references, and it was fun to use some of Shakespeare’s tricks, like the mistaken identity theme.

Dez is a painter who chronicles the events around her in great detail. Are there any parallels between her process as an artist and your own as an author?

Oh, definitely. When I imagined Dez painting, and the ideas she tried to convey, it really wasn’t much different than trying to write. I think an artist of any medium can imagine that the underlying struggle is all one big common denominator of ambition and desire and despair. At one point, Dez wins a prestigious prize and mulls on the fact that she feels a bit flat. She thinks, “That was the thing about art, about any artistic endeavor where you gathered all the energy and emotion that surrounded you and tried to paint it, write it, sing it. It was never quite enough. There was always the impulse to try for better.”

Although it’s the process, more than the end result, that keeps many of us going, Dez paints her life, whereas I prefer to recede into imagined zones. I’ve experienced dramatic events in my life, but when I think about writing about them, I get tired. I already know what happened.

Cascade is set in the turbulent 1930s. What were some of the challenges of writing an historical novel? How did you research the era?

I enjoy research, so I was content to do a lot of it. In the early years, when the novel was a short story idea, I was able to interview three gifted WPA artists before they died, as well as some other wonderful elderly people with keen memories. I watched hours of period newsreels, and old movies with an eye to background detail and an ear to diction. I read art books published before 1935 to get the painting methods right. And how helpful is it that so much research material is now available online? I made great use of the Library of Congress and the Folger Shakespeare Library. I fact–checked obsessively, for example, contacting Strathmore Artist Papers to make sure their illustration boards existed when Dez used them, and figuring out how an operator would have cut and gummed a telegram.

You’ve deftly constructed a plot that ramps up the tension with definable consequences for each character’s actions. What is your method or approach to plotting? How did the plot evolve through drafts?

I’ve always been very aware, when writing, that although a few readers might be content to admire your lovely sentences, all readers demand to be stimulated; they must wonder what will happen next, must care. Characters need to want things that they will or will not get, they need to try things that they will succeed or fail at doing. Their actions and decisions must have consequences. Having many small, personal wants and conflicts within the broader scope of larger, broader conflicts helps to keep readers turning the pages.

As for the evolution of the novel, I’m not the kind of writer who has separate drafts. I just open my story file and revise. I do remember that I had a very hard time writing the part where Dez leaves Cascade. I was tempted to just jump forward and put her in New York, but I knew I had to write through it, had to force myself to imagine how she would actually tell Asa, live with him, go to the train station, etc. I set up a work table in front of my fireplace one winter, and threw log after log onto the fire, day after day, writing through that part. Of course, it’s a lovely, cozy memory now, but at the time I was mostly full of despair, fearing the book would never get through to its ending.

There’s an interesting dynamic in the book between fate and the decisions the characters make, and how each can shape the actions of the story. For you as the author, where does the one end and the other begin?

At this point in my life, I tend to believe that it is fated that we will face certain decisions in our lives, and that when the time comes, the choices that we do make determine our soul’s growth.

You mentioned that readers have been identifying with the ‘drowned town’ aspect of Cascade. What kinds of responses have you been getting?

Well, just as people around the country responded to Dez’s postcards by sending her their stories of dust bowl devastation, storms, and floods, I have had readers similarly connect with me. The responses I’ve received range from funny to incredibly poignant. One reader told me how her grandfather, an influential attorney, incensed by the idea of eminent domain, was able to use his connections to stop their area of the Ozarks from being flooded. She wrote, “I grew up with a grandfather who told me my mission was to ‘blow up all those dams.’ Thank goodness I saw reason and remained a good citizen throughout my life.” Other readers tell me about towns in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island, in the Pacific Northwest, that were “up and moved, and nothing ever the same again.” A woman in Texas reminds us that there are still ongoing clashes between the individual’s rights and the common good: “Here in Texas we are still fighting over landowner’s ‘water rights’ so I guess history hasn't changed that much from the 30's era time of your book.”

When I Skyped with a book club in New Jersey, one of the members could not be with us because she was on the shore, dealing with the sad fact that the beach house her family had owned for generations had been washed away by the devastating storm Sandy. Her loss, her friends said, on the heels of reading Cascade, made them really imagine what it would be like to lose their homes.

Dez feels she has to choose between the traditional path of wife and motherhood and her creative work. In what ways do you see women still struggling with these choices? How has your own experience (if at all) informed this theme in the book?

I definitely see women (and some men) struggling with these choices. Of course, everyone has her own story, but here’s mine: I had my only daughter when I was twenty-five, much earlier than I’d ever planned to have a child. She was born with cystic fibrosis, which readers may know is a pretty devastating genetic lung disease. At the same time, my husband was building his business, so I turned to freelance corporate writing, which allowed me to work at home to take care of our baby and at the same time, lessen the pressure on my husband while he built his company. I put my creative writing dreams on hold until I was in my thirties, when I started to panic.

Maybe because of the daunting extra care that raising my daughter required—weeks–long hospitalizations, time–consuming daily treatments, I was very aware that children, especially in earlier times, before dishwashers and clothes dryers and fully–stocked grocery stores, could easily sap a woman’s energy and result in minimal artistic output.

You resist an easy happily–ever–after ending in this book. Can you talk about how you arrived at this particular way to close the novel?

I find that if you close your eyes and imagine what would really happen, rather than try to dictate a course of events, you will write truth.

Book Club Recommendations

Waldorf \\\\
by Carolino (see profile) 06/29/13
In honor of Dez\\\\\\\'s New York period, we started the evening with old-fashioneds. We also wanted to have madeleines but they are kind of a pain to bake, so we bought packages of them at Starbucks and had them with our coffee, to sober up after the old-fashioners!
Speak to the author
by clsnewhall (see profile) 06/24/13
Our book group attended a reading by the author in October. Ms. O\'Hara joined us at a restaurant to continue the discussion. It was wonderful! We\'ve found talking with the author (by phone, skype, etc.) added to our understanding and enlivens the discussion.
by ADMINOFFICER (see profile) 04/12/13
Visit the author's site first.

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by Tiffany P. (see profile) 11/08/19

  "Brilliant"by Peter H. (see profile) 07/21/13

We chose this thinking it might be good, and then were blown away by it. Intelligent read, with a lot going on, and all threads masterfully woven together. Stunning ending.

  "Unforgettable--Exhilarating and Poignant"by Caroline S. (see profile) 06/29/13

Our club doesn't often agree on books, which is a good thing. We are 9 very different women. But we all loved this book. It's not what you might think. Starts deceptively quietly, simply. Bu... (read more)

  "Unexpected consequences of life choices"by Claudette N. (see profile) 06/24/13

This is a beautifully written book about the choices made that can work out as expected or not. The descriptions are work pictures as art. The time period before WWII is accurately depicted. There is a... (read more)

  "Engrossing plot and beautiful writing"by Caitlin O. (see profile) 05/11/13

Cascade is written beautifully. But it is also one of the most addictive books I have read all year. Perfect combo of page turning story and well-crafted writing. I love when I find that! T... (read more)

  "Cascade"by Marguerite B. (see profile) 04/12/13

Wonderful book. I know the area the book is based on so I HAD to read it. I was not dissapointed.

  "Mesmerizing"by Elizabeth P. (see profile) 02/03/13

Cascade....a depression town that lost its playhouse. A playhouse that was a wedding gift to Asa by his father-in-law, William Hart, when he married his daughter Dez. Dez, who married not... (read more)

  "Too Much Rumination"by ELIZABETH V. (see profile) 01/07/13

This book would be perfect for the reader who likes well-written romances that are far and away better than most books called romances. CASCADE has a story that does not depend on descriptio... (read more)

  "An apt title."by Joyce S. (see profile) 11/17/12

Maryann O'Hara's Cascade is a very interesting, thought provoking novel. The storyline moves along seamlessly despite the tensions that exist throughout the novel. The historical references ... (read more)

  "Cascade just drew me in"by Rosanne B. (see profile) 11/16/12

I felt like I knew these characters and worried about them. I didn't want to put the book down so that I would know what would happen next. It was beautifully written so that you could visualize the... (read more)

Rate this book
Remember me

Now serving over 80,000 book clubs & ready to welcome yours. Join us and get the Top Book Club Picks of 2022 (so far).



Get free weekly updates on top club picks, book giveaways, author events and more
Please wait...