Book review: “The Marriage of Opposites,” by Alice Hoffman
Alice Hoffman uses rich, colorful prose in this historical, fictional novel about the life of a very strong-willed woman and her equally strong-willed son. The time is the 1800s, and the setting is the beautiful and idyllic island of St. Thomas. Rachel Manzana Pomie is the daughter of Jewish parents who fled from the European Inquisition to the island. Rachel is a difficult child, challenging everything her very demanding and proper mother requires of her. Dreams of escaping to Paris consume Rachel’s thoughts, but her dreams are dashed when her father arranges her marriage to a business associate and much older man. She assumes the role of a wife and mother of three children at the age of 16. Rachel goes on to have four more children, the last, a son, whom she loves the most — Camille Pissaro — the famous French impressionist painter.
Following her first husband’s death, Rachel falls into a relationship of passionate and forbidden love with her husband’s nephew, who comes to the island to settle her husband’s estate. This relationship scandalizes the small Jewish community and leads to difficulties for Rachel and her family. Her last child from this illicit affair is a son, Jacobo Camille, who is much like Rachel. He defies and challenges her, as she did her own mother, and eventually, runs away from a life of control that attempts to suppress his love of painting.
The story weaves throughout Rachel’s life, the lives of her children and the life of Jestine, her closest friend and the daughter of the family maid. It follows the story of an illegitimate child stolen from her mother and taken to Paris to live and her mother’s wish to know that her child is still alive.
The characters of Rachel and Camille are real, and Hoffman does a good job of inventing their lives. The writing is detailed and the story is well-developed; it drew me in to experience the lives of this family and its sadness, losses and triumphs. Hoffman deals with the subjugation of women in the 19th century when their wishes and desires were not taken into consideration. She presents in detail the emotions of love and disappointment, which are critical to the development of the characters and the story as it unfolds. I was taken into this world of superstition and folklore, created with prose so descriptive I could actually see the different hues of the blue sky, the lush greens of the island and the vibrant orange of sunsets. I really enjoyed this novel. It’s one of those books that keeps giving back days and weeks after reading it.
Candace Pederson is a bookseller at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore.
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