Born on the island of St. Thomas in 1795, Rachel Pomié has dreams. She buries herself in her father’s library, studying maps of Paris, the homeland of her Jewish grandparents who found their way to the Caribbean decades before, searching for religious freedom.
She and her best friend, Jestine, the daughter of the Pomiés’ cook, Adelle, hope to leave the island together one day to live in that distant magical city.
Rachel’s dreams are also wrapped up in the tropical island’s own mysteries and tales, which she writes down in a secret notebook. She and Jestine stand on the beach at night searching for the turtle-girl, “half human, with a human face and soul,” who chose to live in the sea but “always came back to our shore.”
But the dreams of both girls seem to crash in the last years of their childhood. Rachel’s father arranges a marriage for her that will help the family’s struggling business. Her husband-to-be is 44 years old, more than twice her age, and is a widower with three children. Jestine becomes a maid in the Pomié household.
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Both young women feel trapped, and then it gets worse. Someone does get to go to Paris — but it is Aaron, Rachel’s cousin who is sent there by the Pomiés in order to squash his love affair with Jestine. Rachel and Jestine’s relationship becomes troubled.
But much, much more will happen in Rachel’s life. She’ll get a second chance at love when her husband dies and his nephew, Frédéric Pizzarro, comes to settle at the family’s estate. Their relationship will cause a scandal that will rock the island’s tightly knit Jewish community and leave them as outcasts, creating a challenging start to life for their children, including Camille, who will one day become a world-famous artist.
Alice Hoffman’s The Marriage of Opposites is inspired by the true story of Rachel Monsanto Pomié Petit Pizzarro, the mother of Jacobo Camille Pissarro, one of the fathers of impressionism. The novel traces Rachel’s life, building on the slender frame of facts that history has recorded and injecting the story with details from Hoffman’s rich imagination.
Rachel’s headstrong determination, sense of individuality and intense passion are the nesting materials that cocoon the emerging young artist, who “dreamed of color” and didn’t want to go to school, preferring to study his island surroundings: “This was my library, the landscape around me, luminous and white-hot or starry and black.”
In an interview this past June with the online publication Shelf Awareness, Hoffman explained that, historically, “Rachel was often portrayed as a very difficult woman, the ultimate Jewish mother who was very demanding.”
Hoffman also noted that she wanted to do the book because “women’s stories are most often an oral history, passed down through the generations. My desire was to give a voice to a character who had not fully been heard before and, in Rachel’s case, who had been devalued and maligned because she had a rebel’s soul. She acted as a man might have, and suffered for her choices and, I believe, most likely would not have lived any other way than as she did.”
Hoffman uses four narrative voices in the book, and the first is Rachel’s. The first four chapters of the book span the years from 1807 to 1825 and come from Rachel, and here, Hoffman is at her best, spinning an evocative tale spiced with magical realism, ghosts and spirits, medicine men and curses.
The fifth chapter switches to a third-person narrative, told from Frédéric’s point of view, which adds a layer of understanding to Rachel’s character as he falls head over heels for her.
In the second half of the book, Camille tells his story in the first person, and Hoffman introduces, for one chapter, another third-person point of view from an emerging character.
It’s an ambitious structure, and it works well to show the connections between Rachel and Camille — the tensions that plagued them and the love that bound them across the decades.
But it’s also a bit problematic. Hoffman abandons her main character’s voice for about 100 pages near the end of the novel, giving those pages over to Camille Pissarro, whose real life is inherently interesting for art lovers and has been better documented than his mother’s, of course.
When Rachel’s narrative returns only for the last chapter, her voice seems weaker and diluted and often too much like a vehicle for moving the plot toward its conclusion. What should be a gratifying ending seemed to me a bit odd because I’d been out of dreamy Rachel’s head for too long.
It’s a relatively minor problem. The novel’s pace continues to zip along, combining actual events with creative intrigue that keeps readers guessing about characters’ relationships. There are several characters who don’t (yet) know the identity of their real mother or father and some juicy situations that border on the soap-operatic.
But the novel also takes a deep dive into the ugly, gritty realities of not just religious intolerance but also racism and, of course, sexism. Set it all against the natural wonder of a tropical island and, yes, the chic streets of Paris, and it’s a formula for a satisfying good read.
The Marriage of Opposites
by Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster, $27.99
Audiobook: Simon & Schuster Audio, $39.99; narrated by actors Gloria Reuben, Tina Benko and Santino Fontana with the afterword by the author.