Desdemona Hart has returned home after studying art in Paris to post-Depression Cascade, Massachusetts. She dreams of living in New York City’s artist scene, but circumstances dictate otherwise. Dez’s father and supporter, William Hart, is the owner and actor in the town’s beautiful theater, where Shakespeare’s plays are performed each summer, bringing seasonal visitors to Cascade. William Hart is in poor health and the town’s future is in flux. Dez soon finds herself in a marriage of convenience to her longtime friend, pharmacist Asa Spaulding, in order to have a home for herself and her bankrupt father. Asa owns the town pharmacy and a bit of land.
Cascade is one of two towns being seriously considered by the Water Board to be razed and flooded to become a reservoir for the city of Boston’s increasing water needs. Cascade’s respected traveling salesman of dry goods has died and his artist son, Jacob, takes his place. Dez and Jacob establish a friendship which threatens the uneasy balance in her married life, while the town’s citizens mistrust this Jewish man. Jacob tells Dez about the bad news he gleans from letters from his family in Europe. Dez thinks up a creative way to help Cascade get national attention about its plight, while Asa creates a ruse to divert the Water Board’s decision. Both actions propel Dez to the next step in her artistic and personal life, as she considers whether she should do “the right thing” for others or for herself. The consequences of Dez’s decisions affect her artistic future and freedom but also the life of her husband and of Jacob, a promise made to her father about his beloved theater, and others’ lives as well.
This book is a page turner, filled with the details of daily life in the 1930s both in New York City and the small towns within a few hours’ train ride upstate. The story delves deeply into the experiences and creative process of a working woman painter in Manhattan at that time and beyond. Shakespearean theater and the daily operation of an iconic small town pharmacy with a busy soda fountain counter are also vividly portrayed. I devoured this intelligent historical novel, loosely based on the real life creation of Massachusetts’s Quabbin Reservoir, and look forward to author O’Hara’s next book.