Sparked by Words

Archive for February, 2017

M is for The Marriage of Opposites

the-marriage-of-oppositesThe Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman is one of many novels I’ve loved by this author, this one being a more recent title in her long career. Hoffman is a consummate writer whose skill has matured, nearly always enriched by the magical realism that identifies her style from her earliest work. Marriage is historical fiction based on the life of Rachel Pomie, the mother of the French Impressionist painter, Camille Pissaro, her youngest and most favorite child. The Pomie family lives on the island of St. Thomas in the early 1800s when it’s still a colony governed by Denmark, a situation made more restrictive for the Jewish residents who are bound to island rules and also the expectations of their religious community.

Hoffman immerses us into the native folk remedies and superstitions, stories and food, language and history of St. Thomas. The island is a vivid character in the story, and we feel and see her in the seductive scent of frangipani blossoms that pervade its air, the blazing flamboyant (Poinciana) trees that blanket it with red fever, and the tropical storms that ravage it, threatening the shoreline huts where the poor live. Always there are intense colors, notably “haint blue,” promising protection from demons and sorrow, but also hinting of the passion for painting that one day will inspire the young Camille before he is sent to Paris to study art.

Written in first person from Rachel’s point of view, she states, “I was a girl who knew what I wanted…a country where the moon rose like a silver disc into a cold, clear sky.” Young Rachel’s life is privileged as only the child of wealthy Europeans transplanted to a tiny humid island in the Caribbean can be. Her isolation is abated by reading the stories in her father’s library, filling her with her own stories. She is friends with Jestine, the beautiful, half caste daughter of Adelle, the wise native woman who is her family’s maid. Indulged, headstrong, and rebellious, Rachel is at constant loggerheads with her mother who expects her to submit to the demands of her social class. She dreams of Paris – the fashion, the elegant civilization, and especially the cold climate. When his business is threatened, her father arranges a marriage that solidifies the family’s fortune. Rachel marries a widower with young children from a first marriage, and though she never loves him, she does love his three children and bears him four more.

At the crux of the book are the many love affairs that disregard social conventions, yet flourish despite snubbing by the most important residents. Rachel herself suggests she will never marry but does, and finally finds true love with Frederic, the nephew of her dead husband. Jestine, Adelle’s daughter and Rachel’s friend, falls in love with Rachel’s cousin, Aaron. Both women are forbidden to marry the men they love because of laws prohibiting familial or interracial marriages. Rachel and Frederic defy Jewish law and have four children born out of wedlock, scandalizing the community which ostracizes the family. Jestine’s and Aaron’s beautiful, nearly white little daughter is kidnapped and taken to Paris under the premise that her life will be so much better than what her half black mother could provide.

Flouting all rules, both women remain devoted to their men. Ironically, decades later Rachel cannot abide by her son Camille’s love for a French woman who is not Jewish. Thus comes true her mother’s curse, “I hope you have a child that causes you the misery you have caused me.” The passions, suffering, betrayals, and hypocrisies of one generation do not translate as sympathy for the next, and it is many years of loneliness before Rachel understands that much of her misery is a by-product of her own prejudices.  She notes, “You couldn’t see love, or touch it, or taste it, yet it could destroy you and leave you in the dark, chasing after your own destiny.” Indeed, love lures her, drains her, and consumes her.

From the emotional stew of this complex story emerges the passionate painter who will become the Father of Impressionism, a man whose art opposed convention in search of ground breaking artistic acuity. It is this rebellious young man who responds to Jestine’s heartache for her lost daughter and helps reunite them. Rachel Pomie’s life was shackled by her time and her culture yet she bequeathed a fiercely independent spirit to her son who founded one of the world’s most beloved art movements.

Alice Hoffman wove much of the historical Rachel Pomie into the fabrication of her story. The Marriage of Opposites reveals a determination for identity and self realization where opposing forces sometimes tear each other to shreds but occasionally, sublimely benefit each other. As a woman, a writer, an artist, a wife, a mother, and a Jew, I am indebted to Rachel Pomie and grateful to have met her through Hoffman’s book.

I look forward to learning about your favorite M fiction books.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for M:

The Magus by John Fowles

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards

The Merlin Trilogy (3 books plus one more) by Mary Stewart

The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd

Mila 18 by Leon Uris

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Moloka’i by Alan Brennert

Mudbound by Hilary Martel

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Simon & Schuster Paperbacks

 

 

In the Mood, Eros

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My fingers blister holding a particular photograph. It shows Pearl and Max the first time they met. I don’t know if it was love at first sight but I learned to juggle holding that photo – hot pic – burning fingers – juggle – hot pic – burning fingers – yikes! Chemistry, fate, the lobster effect – it’s so obvious even in 4 X 5 format, you’d have to be stationed on the moon not to see it. They were a couple, but each of them already coupled with someone else. Five years later Pearl and Max wed each other. Five years hence they are still married, a perfect match, though exhausted what with several kids to wear them out. It’s the happily ever after we all yearn to live, though I could do with a bit more guaranteed sleep.

Max and Pearl have entered the blah-blah zone – for story purposes they are as interesting as beans in a can. They are now happily ever blah-blah.

The writable, the readable story exists in the tension between them as they explored their initial ill-timed relationship, got separated from the first claimants on their hearts, worked out all the kinks and obstacles, and finally declared that first attraction was real and long lasting. I only know Pearl and Max from the sizzling photographic evidence but I could make up a story about the first five years. The subsequent lovey dovey decades – who cares? It’s the long term love affair we all want for ourselves, but snuggled up in bed at night, we want to read drama, conflict, unfaithfulness, and secret assignations. Maybe a bit of sex.

February seems a perfect month to talk about love. That is, in between the kisses and chocolate. Not like anyone needs incentive to talk about love – we’re surrounded by the evidence of our obsession with it. You and I would be blips in the nebula nursery without it, not even a star’s glitter to mark our tenuous entry here on earth if our parents hadn’t – you know. So many writers capture the passion and intensity of playing footsie and sharing hearts. Why is that?

We love to read about love, and legions write about it. Love stories sell: scandalous, sexy, unrequited, toxic, lost opportunities. All the juicy passion, poignant missed chances, betrayals, and mixed messages make for exciting reading. Everything in moderation, maybe in real life. In stories, lots of excess, extreme to the nth degree, keeps us reading late into the night.

We could start with Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence. I read it in college. Who didn’t? And then I read everything else Lawrence wrote because he seemed to understand everything about love and I still didn’t understand a thing. I mean, I was in college but first year. Who understood anything back then? I read Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita, also in college though a bit older, and found myself shocked but intrigued. I couldn’t figure out whom to like, whom to despise. Well, gee whiz, of course. Read all the classic love stories, from Pride and Prejudice, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, Dr. Zhivago, The Scarlet Letter, a hundred more, and realized that books about love were also books about life. I learned how to make choices, how to live with integrity, what to grieve, what to celebrate, when to move on, when to look back. In theory I learned. In practice I’d learned nothing but it didn’t stop me from reading.

When I started to write stories, I started to write about love and this is where my writing stopped cold. Not good when you’re trying to write. With no intention of writing gymnastic details, I needed to discover the kind of extraordinary insight that marks great literature. Where did Bronte and Hardy get their ideas? If it came from personal experience, I had little to draw from. Did I want to write about the loves in my life, when I’d lived nothing like the adventures and passions of Heathcliff and Catherine or – or –like anyone I’d read about? My life was more parallel to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with so many lovers and buffoons, players and kings, and one poor soul who falls asleep and wakes to find herself in love with a donkey. Well that would be me, young and in love with donkeys and scoundrels but lacking the poetry. So how to write about love? Maybe I could not.

Then it happened. From a place where my young self yearned and my older self finally learned, I wrote about love. I wrote of people in love, even in lust, people betrayed, confused, longing, unrequited, even satisfied. I thought about how it felt to be in love and realized it corresponded to being alive. No matter one’s age or culture or orientation, what I wrote about is how to get from one day to the next, trying like crazy to keep my characters’ sanity from launching into orbit and their dreams one step closer to achievement. Kinda like me. For me that’s what it means to love, to be in love. It’s to be in life. And that I can write about.

I can’t say it any better than this from the Song of Songs, written by King Solomon: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” Looking again at the photograph of Pearl and Max, I see what they knew from the very first moment they saw each other: they belonged together.

Enjoy the day, friends and lovers, all.

 

 

 

Cupid image courtesy Google public domain mages

 

 

L is for Like Water for Chocolate

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Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel immersed me into a life I would never had imagined and yet convinced me I was standing at the edge of Tita De La Garza’s world, watching as her story unfolded. Tita is a the youngest daughter in a Mexican family whose tradition demands that she will serve her mother her entire life, never marrying and forgoing any life for herself. You may scoff at such an antiquated idea but if you’ve been forced to submission by a dominating parent, as I was, you know it is possible. Yet Tita doesn’t lose herself completely. She is a talented, creative, passionate woman who falls so deeply in love with a man that it informs her entire life even as it consumes her.

Born in the ranch kitchen amidst a flood of her mother’s tears, Tita is bound to her family’s traditions. Each chapter begins with an elaborate recipe, one that Tita as a master cook prepares for her family and guests. Each recipe represents the richness of Mexican life as well as Tita’s inner spirit, flavoring the food she prepares with native spices and her emotional mien at the time. The story is cast against the background of the Mexican revolution at the turn of the twentieth century. One of Tita’s sisters, after eating one of her meals, runs off to join a zealous young revolutionary, eventually becoming the independent woman Tita could not.

Imagine these clichés made sensuous with Esquivel’s masterful use of magic realism – Crying a river of tears. Tita cries so much over the impending wedding of her sister to her own beloved, Pedro, arranged because her mother will not let Tita marry, that the wedding cake she’s baked is poisoned by her bitterness, making the guests ill.

A life unraveled. Tita tries to transfer her love for Pedro into the practical creation of a crocheted bedspread. Being driven away from her mother’s home at last by a well-intentioned doctor, Tita’s trousseau bedspread unrolls behind the cart in a mile long spill of lost dreams and denied aspirations.

Nursing one’s wounds. Tita despairs of ever marrying her true love and bearing children, but she claims limited victory by nursing a newborn infant, the one born to Pedro and her sister, who has no milk. (“How can that possibly happen?” science demands, and magical realism responds, “It’s a story, relax and enjoy.”)

Haunted by the ghosts of one’s past. Tita, sorrowful after her mother’s death, is haunted throughout the rest of the book by her mother’s angry ghost who continues to torment her. No matter how Tita tries to excise herself from Mama Elena, the ghost haunts Tita and the rest of the family, reminding everyone of their obligations and failures. Eventually, Tita discovers one of her mother’s ghosts, a past history that proves she was not always chaste and noble.

Love is like a fire in one’s belly. Tita’s love and desire for self-realization collide with the reality of a ruthless, unjust world, just as the revolution brings violence to the country in its quest for freedom from political and social repression. So much so that Tita, given a recipe for making matches, finally has the means to declare her personal independence. When she and Pedro meet one last time, the one free of her brutal mother, the other free of the wife he never loved, she eats matches and lights her home on fire with her passion, burning it to the ground. The only survivor is the recipe book.

The title, Like Water for Chocolate, offers many interpretations of meaning. The one I most prefer is that true love cannot be replaced by a thin imitation. Though John proposes marriage to Tita, Pedro is the man she truly loves, and just as water is a bland substitute for chocolate, John cannot take his place. The story is suffused with sexual energy, exotic descriptions of food, the conflict between society’s expectations and the liberty promised by revolution.

My favorite line from the book is spoken by Dr. John Brown, the man who brings Tita to his home so she can recover from the catatonic state brought about by her mother’s relentless cruelty. “My grandmother had a very interesting theory; she said that each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them all by themselves.” It’s the incentive that ultimately allows Tita to experience sexual fulfillment with Pedro but also her freedom from the constraints of strangling traditions.

Sympathetic to Tita’s predicament, I was mesmerized by Esquivel’s ability to portray so many characters with fully dimensional personalities, showing them as flawed and therefore believable as they were noble. The plot is never predictable, the outcome fulfilling though unconventional. Each of us has the potential to endure a personal revolution by confronting our demons and overcoming our deficiencies. Tita reminds me of all I have yet to achieve.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for L:

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov

The Lord of the Flies by William Golding

The Lord of the Rings (entire trilogy) by J.R.R. Tolkien

Lust for Life by Irving Stone

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite L fiction books.

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Knopf, Doubleday Publishing Group