1922, Minnesota. Trinity Baird has just been released from Oak Hills Asylum, to which her well-meaning parents committed her for nearly two years. She and her family and friends converge at Baird Island up near Canada, where her wealthy family has summered for years. Trinity’s mission: to avoid getting put away again and to return to her art studies in Paris. Will she succeed?
I won’t answer that, of course, though spoilers are beside the point when a plot runs along predictable lines, as Waterfall’s does. A handful of issues—racism, anti-Semitism, alcoholism and mental illness, suppression of women and control over their sexuality—provides some friction. Yet they never quite spark engagement, maybe because of how they’re handled in the narrative.
“Be empowered,” a man coaches Trinity. A woman friend smoking a cigarette says, “When we push boundaries, we’re considered a threat.” Trinity thinks of her mental crisis as “her meltdown.”
Men encouraged women in the 1920s; women understood the danger of unconventional behavior; people had self-awareness of their mental states. When a historical novel couches its issues in today’s terms, though, the sense is that while its characters wear period clothes in period settings, they are no more period people than the actors in a soft period drama.
Waterfall is most compelling in its portrait of the Baird family, especially the relationships of the mother and the two adult daughters/sisters. Without milking the reader’s sympathy, Casanova shows each woman’s emotional status in the family, their jealousies and traumas, and the repressive social conventions that have soured their time together. The connections the women manage to make with each other aren’t tied up in pretty bows, but are left tentative and conditional.