During the 1930s, a conflicted new wife seeks to reconcile her heart's ambitions with binding promises she has made
1935: Desdemona Hart Spaulding was an up-and-coming Boston artist when she married in haste and settled in the small, once-fashionable theater town of Cascade to provide a home for her dying father. Now Cascade is on the short list to be flooded to provide water for Boston, and Dez's discontent is complicated by her growing attraction to a fellow artist. When tragic events unfold, Dez is forced to make difficult choices. Must she keep her promises? Is it morally possible to set herself free?
Fans of Richard Russo, Amor Towles, Sebastian Barry, and Paula McLain will devour this transporting novel about the eternal tug between our duties and our desires, set within the context of the Depression, NYC during Roosevelt's New Deal era, and the approaching World War.
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published August 16th 2012 by Viking Adult
ISBN 0670026026 (ISBN13: 9780670026029)
About the Author
I was the longtime associate fiction editor at Ploughshares, Boston’s award-winning literary journal. My short fiction has been published in The North American Review, Five Points, Redbook, The Crescent Review, and these anthologies: MicroFiction, Brevity and Echo, The Art of Friction, Sudden Flash Youth, and Fictionality/Reality/ Possibility. I am grateful for grants I received from the St. Botolph Foundation and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and to the editors who nominated my stories for Pushcart Prizes. My story collection was a finalist for 2010’s Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction.
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During his final days, William Hart was haunted by drowning dreams. Every night at the sound of his shouts, Dez came awake herself, always briefly startled to find a husband-- Asa-- sleeping beside her. She would dash across the hall, fearing another heart attack, but by then her father would be lying quietly, gazing at the plaster ceiling.Dez grew up with something of a charmed life before the Depression. Her father was important in the community, the owner of the playhouse where the likes of Lionel Barrymore performed. They had a housekeeper to take care of the home, and enough money for Dez to travel and attend school in Boston. She never wanted for anything. She could spend her time indulging her whims and feeding her creative nature. Then the Depression struck, her father lost everything but the playhouse, and suddenly she is forced to make choices she fears she cannot live with. Now stuck in a lifeless marriage to a good man for whom she feels no passion, trying to find time for her art in between keeping the house and performing “wifely duties”, forever trying to stave off pregnancy, she feels doomed. Add to this the drama of the constant threat that hangs over the town that it could be chosen to be sacrificed to create a water reservoir for nearby Boston and surrounding areas (although Dez secretly hopes this may actually come to fruition, as she longs to move to New York and get away from this stagnating town that is suffocating her).Then traveling salesman and artist Jacob shows up on her doorstep, and Dez finds in him the soul mate of an artist's heart.
I loved seeing things through an artist’s eye. When Dez would get an idea for a piece, her description became a painting that I wanted hanging on my wall:
And as he studied the new painting, she, with the fresh perspective that even a few minutes could give, saw how the light would need to fall much more significantly on that foremost blade of grass. The viewer’s eye needed to be drawn to that blade, forced to reflect on how alike it was to all the others, while still uniquely itself. She needed to add something, a drop of dew perhaps, glistening and fat...And when wanting to do a piece about the drowning of a city:
...and the look of the blade changed-- it became more dimensional, more emphatic, more what she was after. "That’s it! I want the viewer to first look and see ‘grass’, and then look closer and mull on the fact that this blade-- here-- is different. And to wonder why." (page 37)
Can I make that view up through water convey, to the viewer, how frantic the gasping-for-life instinct must be, how precious the air on the other side? (page 84)I found this story to be mostly sad and morose. There were only a few bright moments of passion or love or humanity. Throughout much of it, I was left thinking of everything being drab and gray and damp. Probably because of all of the talk of water, the river, the dam, of drowning. It felt “wet” and humid and cloying and suffocating. There were brief moments of color and beauty and lightness when Jacob was around, but most of the time life was gray and miserable for Dez. In this respect, the author was very good at relaying what Dez was feeling. The town of Cascade and her loveless marriage were suffocating and cloying, while her stolen moments with Jacob were bright and light.
Dez spent most of the book discontent. She didn't appreciate how lucky she was to have the security her husband offered during the Depression. Asa was a good man- ethical and hardworking. But he was not a passionate man, he did not have an artist's eye or heart, and he left Dez feeling alone in life. Then she meets Jacob, who is of the same heart as her, and they become star-crossed lovers, trapped by convention and propriety and with a passion fueled by an appreciation for the beauty in life.
I was left feeling that Dez’s friend Abby was the catalyst for everything bad in the book. In the beginning I sort of liked Dez. She seemed honorable and conscientious. Then Abby showed up, and in a few short hours with her it was as if her self-centered and arrogant aura covered Dez’s life, her thoughtless poking and prodding at the structure and mediocrity of Dez’s life began to whittle down Dez’s resolve, and a pall fell over Dez’s world. Suddenly nothing was good enough, and she turned into this self-absorbed woman who only cared about her own needs and desires, at the risk of hurting everyone around her.
Dez, like many artists, actually had some great insights into the human condition...
Sometimes you needed to look up from your work, from yourself, blink your eyes-- there was sky up there, a vast expanse of air to breathe. (page 132)...but mostly she seemed too lost in her own misery to care about anything else. Eventually she makes it to New York, where she believes happiness resides, but even there things are not perfect...
Cascade is too provincial, New York too raw and lascivious. Are you ever going to be happy? (page 284)I felt the same way-- that this woman would never be happy. She would always want what she didn’t have. The grass was always greener on the other side. And always pulling her forward is the future of the Playhouse and the secret held within Portia's casket, a miniature casket that Dez's father gave her before he died, telling her that it holds a treasure. Making Dez promise to not open the casket until the Playhouse reopened, Dez keeps the casket close by, a promise of the future.
My final word: I enjoyed this story, for the most part. It was a little heavy and at times depressing. In the beginning, I loved the relationship between star-crossed lovers Dez and Jacob, always attempting to keep their passion at arms length. Later it becomes evident that Dez is consumed with herself and what she wants, and that everyone around her will suffer for it. But it was well-written, and it kept me guessing with little twists and turns, and stories within stories.
Thank you to TLC Book Tours for allowing me to be a part of this tour.
Check out the master schedule for the tour:
Monday, December 3rd: Booktalk & More
Tuesday, December 4th: Peppermint PhD
Wednesday, December 5th: Savvy Verse & Wit
Friday, December 7th: JulzReads
Monday, December 10th: …the bookworm…
Tuesday, December 11th: Cerebral Girl in a Redneck World
Wednesday, December 12th: Shall Write
Thursday, December 13th: Teresa’s Reading Corner
Friday, December 14th: A Reader of Fictions
Monday, December 17th: Let Them Read Books
Tuesday, December 18th: Tiffany’s Bookshelf
Wednesday, December 19th: I’m Booking It
Thursday, December 20th: Dreaming in Books
Wednesday, December 26th: Broken Teepee
Thursday, December 27th: Books and Movies
Wednesday, January 2nd: Lisa’s Yarns
Thursday, January 3rd: Dwell in Possibility
Friday, January 4th: A Bookish Way of Life
TBD: Book Journey
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I received a copy of this book to review through TLC Book Tours and the publisher, in exchange for my honest opinion. I was not financially compensated in any way, and the opinions expressed are my own and based on my observations while reading this novel.