The 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