By Georgia Edwards | Contributor
Alice Hoffman’s latest novel is set in the 1800s on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. In this idyllic paradise, the reader will meet Rachel Pomie Petit Pizzarro, the strong-willed mother of the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro (who later changed the spelling of his surname).
The first two-thirds of the book belong to Rachel. Independent and forthright, she is a thorn in the side of her rigidly judgmental mother but a joy to her indulgent father. Rachel does not fit in with the traditional lifestyle of Charlotte Amelie, the small town where her Jewish ancestors settled in order to escape the European Inquisition. Her best friend is a St. Thomas native, and the two explore the island’s folklore, spinning mysterious tales that Rachel records in a journal.
Rachel’s first marriage to Isaac Petit, an older widower with three children, is a transaction arranged by her parents to save her father’s business. Thirty years her senior, Isaac dies a few years into their marriage, leaving Rachel with six children. Women were not allowed to inherit in Rachel’s world, and Isaac’s nephew, Frederic Pizzarro, travels from Paris to St. Thomas to sort out the estate. At 22, he is seven years Rachel’s junior, but they are immediately attracted to one another. According to Judaic beliefs, Frederic is considered her nephew, and their affair scandalizes the community.
Undeterred, Rachel seizes life and love, this time on her own terms. The couple will have three sons, the youngest, Camille. Eventually, Frederic and Rachel are married, but she remains alienated from the synagogue and those who continue to be suspicious of her.
The relationship between Rachel and Camille evolves in the latter part of the book. Camille is her favorite child, but the woman who considers herself a free thinker objects to her son’s desire to become a painter. Unwittingly, she becomes the mother she once hated. The love that binds the two, however, will overcome the tensions that plague them.
Hoffman uses several narrative voices to tell her story. Through Rachel, Frederic and Camille, she paints a magical picture of St. Thomas, with its colors and fragrant flowers, flamboyantly feathered birds and the lull of the turquoise ocean. It is the palette that later inspires Camille to paint unusual landscapes and portraits.
There are several forms of “opposites” in the novel aside from the obvious contrast between Rachel and her first husband. These include a strict religious enclave set against the lush, playful background of St. Thomas, the racism of white European settlers co-existing with the island’s natives, Rachel’s headstrong passions flying in the face of rigid community beliefs, and the emotional differences she has with her son.
With The Marriage of Opposites, Hoffman has combined accurate historical facts with fiction and brings St. Thomas Island and its inhabitants to life with her skilled prose and fully developed characters.