Sparked by Words

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



Comments on: "M is for The Marriage of Opposites" (44)

  1. I haven’t read this, but your list of other contenders reminded me how much I loved Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge” – even though I had to read it at school, which seems to be enough to put many people off particular books for life. I could never bring myself to re-read the scene where Henchard leaves the little caged bird outside Elizabeth-Jane’s wedding party, though, and it dies in the cold. I suppose the imagery is very heavy-handed and it’s all very sentimental – but even writing that summary makes me want to well up! I really do think Michael Henchard is one of the greatest characters in literature – he is sadly overlooked.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment abut The Mayor. Hardy wrote some amazing stories, and a few clunkers. I chose Jude the Obscure (J is for in this series) for my Hardy book and explained why I took the course in college. Today I think Hardy is overlooked as a great writer though people know his stories through the movies made of many of his books. His writing style is somewhat dated (all his novels were written in the late 1800s)but his insight into human psychology, societal and Christianity’s overbearing expectations, and the frequent misfires of justice still resonate today. Nearly every one of his books describe wrenching scenes that stay with a reader all their lives. I agree about Michael Henchard – what a flawed character but one you can’t forget.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This does sound good. Sad, though, as so much of life is.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I couldn’t get into Marriage of Opposites, but I loved Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers. I loved Dovekeepers so much that I bought the hardcover, new! (That’s huge for a devoted library-user and used-paperback junkie like me.)

    My favorite M books, though, are Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson and My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira. Major Pettigrew is about an aging Englishman, his strained relationship with his family, and his growing friendship with his village’s Pakistani shopkeeper. It’s a quiet, sweet story that touches on serious themes of aging and racism. I adored it (another hardcover purchase!), and so did my book club. Mary Sutter is darker. It’s about a New York midwife who becomes a surgeon during the Civil War.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m smiling, Ilene – if I really love a book, I’ll find a hardback copy to keep. And thus my library keeps growing.

      Thank you for your recommendations. I’ve had Major Pettigrew on my to-read list but Mary Sutter is one I’ll look into sounds like a really interesting story.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t have a favorite M novel off the top of my head, but I’ve always loved Mice and Men. Both of my kids have read the book for school, as well, which is why it is on my mind.

    Your final paragraph is wonderfully written, Shari. Proud to know you and call you my friend. I’m going to read this book. I need something to sink my thoughts into. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Shari, I was here physically but not mentally. Don’t have the focus or energy to read, much less comment. But wanted you to know I LOVE YOU.


  6. Sharon, this is a wonderful review and I’m taken with the sweeping epic nature of this book, the characters, the story -that it is based on fact so much the better! I feel this is one I should have read this and will look for it now – can’t wait to give this a go.

    An M book that meant a lot to me and touched me deeply was ‘Mourning has Broken’ by Carol Balawyder. Here is a brief description of it from Amazon: ‘Mourning Has Broken offers a moving and poignant look at grief and loss. In this collection of narrative non-fiction essays, the author speaks from the heart not only about the death of a dear sister but also about the mourning of a mother, a father, a dear friend, a career and a religion.’ I wrote a detailed review on my blog and was the first book I could read in a long time following a loss and the poetic nature of the writing was exceptional.


    • Annika, thanks for the suggestion for Mourning Has Broken – I will definitely look for this one as it sounds like something I’d benefit from reading. At my age, I’ve suffered much loss and sadly know a lot more will follow. I’m going to look up your review on your site.

      I hope you enjoy Marriage of Opposites as much as I did – let me know what you think.

      Liked by 2 people

      • So sorry to hear about the losses in your life and I do hope the book gives you comfort, support, wisdom and even a bit of laughter (true for me).

        I’ve just bought Marriage of Opposites (86% sale!!) and started reading the first couple of paragraphs and was hooked. My next read after my current book. Can’t wait! I’ll definitely come back and let you know my thoughts on it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t think I’ve suffered any more than anyone of my age, and sadly, I know of many much younger people who’ve survived loss, abuse, illness, and homelessness – my complaints are small. But thank you for your kind thoughts.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow – sounds terrific especially if you chose it over Geisha.


    • I also loved Geisha but the closest contender for M was The Magus.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Then will have to read 😀

        Did you know first drafts of Geisha had male protagonist?


      • Really? I had no idea. It would have been a very different book with an entirely different point of view. I always wondered about Goldman’s ability to portray the longings of a young girl as she becomes a woman in a unique world. He interviewed a real geisha to get some of her perspective and she later wrote her own story.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ah – yes – and wasn’t there a bit of controversy over it?


      • I think that’s why the real geisha wrote her own book – for some reason she was unhappy about how “her life” was portrayed in Goldman’s book. It’s the problem with encountering a fictional version of yourself that you don’t recognize or don’t like and not being willing to simply give it up to being fiction.

        A similar situation happened with The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway, inspired by the life of a real cellist who played during the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War in defiance of how dangerous it was because of Serb attacks on the city. Galloway’s book is fiction though obviously and loosely based on the actual cellist’s actions. The real cellist became enraged over the book – he felt his life had been stolen.

        Always a danger for fiction writers – how much of history is ours to invent for our stories?

        Liked by 1 person

      • yes, a danger. but then, even when I was a journalist doing my best to relate facts as factually as I could, there is controversy. everyone has different views.

        I think, tho, there’s a bit of difference when a fiction writer seems to have exploited… As a journalist, there’s a difference between reporting on private people vs public ones. Public ones, ie politicians & celebs, are up for grabs because they’re putting themselves out there & using media as much as media is using them.

        “The Help” – did you hear of controversy there? huge!

        on another note, was just reading Ipuna Black’s blog about grit – & reminded me of how much I looooove ‘True Grit’ – have you read it?


      • I see your point, but I still think writers have a right to present fiction on their terms. We readers have a right to embrace or reject their books. In both these cases, the writers presented a fictional story, different from what journalists are supposed to do which is to relate the facts as accurately as possible.

        Yes, The Help brought on a lot of controversy and probably some was legitimate. Have you noticed the controversy over The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister? Yikes! What seems on the surface to be a beloved kids’ book about sharing turns out to be a Communist plot! Who knew?

        I think I’ll leave this topic right here – though it could be discussed for another hundred years or so.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I agree – however it takes extremely thick skin to not care about making enemies. Perhaps it’s easier when one is relatively guaranteed kudos from the masses. I’ll leave the subject too but must indulge one more observation-which is that I haven’t heard about Rainbow Fish but now am curious about a kids’ book I otherwise wouldn’t have learned of had it not been for controversy/scandal- interesting how even negative publicity can benefit.

        It is lovely to talk books with you, dear Sharon 😀


      • Always love talking to you, Daal – books or anything.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Hmm… A favorite M book? I can think of one I wouldn’t want to read again, namely, “Madam Bovary.” I had to read this book at university, but found it a real chore. Emma Bovary was such a stuck-up, selfish creature, I couldn’t wait to be shot of her.


  9. Middlemarch is my all time favorite book. I went into it knowing nothing about it and assumed it would end in some depressing fashion. The characters are so well-drawn from page one. The relationships are complex and there’s tons of fantastic characters. There’s sly humor as well. Eliot made me sympathize with almost everyone and the ending was just what I wanted. I adore a good long read and one with a strong but flawed woman as the main character made it that much better for me.


    • Middlemarch has been on my very long to-read list for a very long time but I still haven’t gotten to it. I know how you love your flawed characters, Adrienne, so this book may have gotten moved up a few titles because of your enthusiastic admiration.


  10. I haven’t been blogging for some time and am now reconnecting with my favorite blogger pals. You are definitely one of them.

    Let me begin by saying Alice Hoffman is one of my favorite authors. I haven’t read this particular book yet but will put it on my TBR list. Your review of the
    Book was excellent – and I am intrigued by the the story Hoffman tells.

    I have read several of the M stories on your list and particularly enjoyed The Magus and Memoirs of a Geisha. My favorite is Moloka’i, however. I became quite a fan of Alan Brennart after reading that book. Wonderful novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kate, I was so pleased to see that you’ve returned to the blogging world – welcome back.

      Thank you for your generous heart about my blog.

      If you liked Moloka’i, you’ll enjoy Brennert’s Honolulu. Each examines a particularly difficult period of Hawaiian history. I like historical fiction in general, I tend toward realism, and these books mostly fall in those categories.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. Interesting background on the mother of Camille Pissaro, a painter who I’ve always particularly liked. I never knew his background was difficult. Thanks for sharing this. 🙂


    • I’m glad you enjoyed the article. His art shimmers, a lovely, lively effect.

      Wondering though – do you know of anyone whose background was not difficult? I know of very few, including my own.


  12. Lovely review, Sharon. I’m grateful for the opportunity to tell you about one of my all time favorite novels: “The Mermaid’s Singing” by Lisa Carey. I have been following this author for many years, as it seems she lived in Ireland around the same time I was there. Lisa Carey did as I did, which is to say she fell in love with the Irish culture and wrote a novel set there, but whereas I did it once, Lisa Carey has done so five times! She’s a brilliant writer, and The Mermaid’s Singing is my favorite of all her work. It is one story told from the individual vantage point of three women, in the same family. It is set on an island off Ireland’s western coast, and is tinged with hints of Irish folklore. It’s language is spellbinding, and I know you’ll appreciate it for all its depth and nuance. I can only point to a handful of writers that floor me, and will report now that Lisa Carey is among them. As they say in Eire, slainte!


    • Thank you, Claire, for your enthusiastic mention of Carey’s book. I’d already added it to my list of books I plan to read, based on an earlier review from your blog site. This is one of the things that blogs do well: support books not as well known but exceptionally well written. Hopefully other folks will add Carey’s book to their lists.

      BTW, your books are on my list (the list is very long.) Anyone who reads your blog knows your writing talent is extraordinary.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Sharon. It occurred to me just yesterday to say if I can lend support, in any way, as you look for a literary agent ( which you will, no doubt, find) even if its to compare notes, email me


      • Thank you, Claire – I will take you up on this kind offer.

        (Got called away for something family related, so I’m finally back to complete this reply.)

        I find the back story behind your book, especially the title, is compelling. It shows how much a book becomes a community property before it gets into print – exactly as you’ve stated.


      • I’m very sincere about this. Nobody ever lands an agent alone, it takes a village! Now’s the time to rope in your friends! And yes, sometime I hope you read Dancing to an Irish Reel. I wrote A Portal in Time because I couldn’t get arrested with my “Irish book.” My thinking, at the time, was to write a page-turner in a genre that sells, in an attempt to have something, anything traditionally published. It worked and led to Dancing’s publication, but I prefer Dancing to an Irish Reel ( whose original title was The Spiddal Pier– publisher wanted something catchier) to recommend me. It’s telling of what you’ll see of me in the future. Slainte!


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