The Marriage of Opposites: A Novel
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman. (Simon & Schuster, 369 pp. $27.99)
In The Marriage of Opposites, Alice Hoffman asks the reader to understand the passionate motivations of Camille Pissarro, the Jewish-born French artist who grew up in the Virgin Islands in the 19th century and became one of the first Impressionist painters.
Surprisingly, the artist—who virtually abandoned his Jewish identity—is not at the heart of this novel. Rather, the interactions among the Jewish and European settlers in the 19th century and the mingling of slaves and freed slaves and their offspring take center stage when we’re not following the travails of the secondary characters.
Mixing prodigious research with literary invention, Hoffman tells the story of Pissarro through the eyes of his mother, Rachel Pomié Petit Pizzarro, a prickly, uninhibited Jewish woman born in the West Indies. Hoffman has an affinity for portraying powerful women who overcome oppressive circumstances, and her loyal fans will not be disappointed. Rachel’s attitudes, statements and behavior shock her own mother and the Jewish community, except her childhood friend, the daughter of the family’s African slave and cook. Rachel’s true love is a nephew by marriage with whom she lived before they married (her second time) defying the local establishment (because marriage between an aunt and nephew is prohibited in Jewish law). Her first marriage was an arranged match to a much older man who left her a widow at 29.
Rachel’s unconventional life ended in Paris at the age of 94. In all, she raised three stepchildren and eight children of her own, including the legendary Pissarro, who adopted the French spelling of the family name when he moved to Paris.
Beyond the artist and his mother, Hoffman adds enough characters to populate a long-running soap opera, sometimes stretching credulity. She creates a parallel universe of complex relationships, mixed-race offspring with nameless fathers and, among other things, an island herbal healer who lives in a shack in the woods and who says of the two-week-old future artist: “He sees what you cannot see.”
What is real and what is made up? Not until an epilogue do we learn which events and characters are true, and that can be confusing.
The lush Caribbean setting gives Hoffman an opportunity to conjure up mystical “ghosts turned into birds,” witches, pet donkeys, turtles, elegant fashions, sachets, both physical and emotional fevers, and dreams, lots of dreams.
Hoffman’s novel is all over the place. Is she implying that the palette of verdant colors and wispy grasses and trees Pissarro experienced in his childhood inspired him to become an artist?
Is it about life among Jews on St. Thomas? Is it about a dreamy, idyllic innocent universe and how people adapt to their surroundings? Or is it an introduction to the life of a giant of the art world?
Hoffman sprinkles fairy dust and local folklore over her story, and can’t be faulted for imagining life. But the focus on Pissarro’s mother, a character little known in history, is hard to pull off, and this story leaves the reader a bit shortchanged.