“Waterfall” by Mary Casanova, University of Minnesota Press, 2021

Reviewed by Gail Nord

A waterfall is a relationship based on topography. The erosional energy of water creates a channel through which water moves by gravitational necessity. A sudden decline in topography results in a waterfall. Falling water produces energy. In addition to sightseers, a waterfall may draw entrepreneurs who understand that this power can be harnessed to propel industrial production. 

Judged by the standards of her wealthy parents, Trinity Baird is a too spirited for her own good. An artist, she’s talented enough for the Sorbonne. A young woman with sexual desires, she has a long-term attraction to proto-environmentalist Victor Guttenberg. After making an overt play for him, and being roundly rejected, her emotional reaction causes her parents to commit her to the St. Peter Asylum. Set in 1922, the book examines conditions at the asylum, especially as pertaining to female inmates.

As the novel Waterfall opens, Trinity has been released from St. Peter, and will be spending the summer on a family-owned island on the northern border of Minnesota. She is, in a real sense, on probation. If she behaves herself, she returns to Paris and continued study at the Sorbonne. If she shows signs of instability, her parents have the power to have her recommitted.

Covering the span of a summer, we see a parallel between a dammed waterfall and Trinity’s present-moment life. She sees herself as trapped, being financially at the mercy of her parents (studying at the Sorbonne is not cheap). The central question of the book explores the power dynamic between Trinity and her mother, as well as Trinity’s growing sense of herself as an independent woman capable of self-determination.

Trinity’s strength is tested as she faces a fire, a storm, a boat crash, her sister’s alcoholism, her mother’s laudanum addiction, her parents’ anti-Semitism, her father’s cruelty to impoverished Natives, her attraction to a young architect, and her ongoing longing for Victor. In the process she meets author Sinclair Lewis who promises to buy a painting from her, which would finance her studies.

Mary Casanova, with 39 published books to her credit, is familiar with the landscape she evocatively portrays in Waterfall, her first adult novel. This is the third of a series of interconnected books, each of which focuses on a different main character. Trinity Baird is loosely based on Virginia Roberts, the historical figure who graces the book jacket.. I would suggest that readers begin by turning to the last few pages of the book where fictional versus historical aspects are spelled out.

If you enjoy an exquisitely drawn natural setting, have an interest in the social mores of the 1920s and the issues of women then and now, pick up a copy of Waterfall. It is a compelling read and will provide an excellent springboard for book group discussion.