Simon & Schuster, 2015.
As with all of Alice Hoffman’s novels, her poetic descriptions are melodic and lyrical right from the first line. Her storytelling and world-building are so powerful that the story pulls you in immediately, and she has a talent for making the reader feel like you are right there in the story. It is like you are being told a fairy tale as you fall asleep, where the lines blur between fantasy and reality.
The best historical novels make history personal, so we can absorb factual information in the context of a story. With that in mind, The Marriage of Opposites is certainly a success. This is (partly) a fictionalized biography of the painter Camille Pissarro, yet it is almost wholly focused on the life of his mother, Rachel. He is almost a minor character in his own life, eclipsed by the strength and passion of his mother, whose unorthodox decisions made him what he was.
Rachel and Camille both struggle to fit in to their families and to the larger community of the island of St. Thomas, which seems at first to be open to many different cultures and spiritual beliefs. However, there is a limit to the tolerance on the island, and a hierarchy of rights within the overall system of justice. Rachel’s family, the Pomies, are Jews who are transplanted on St. Thomas like the apple tree they carry with them. Fleeing from persecution across Europe, they struggle to survive in the new climate. Plants also serve as a metaphor for storytelling: “There is the outside of a story, and there is the inside of a story…One is the fruit and may be delicious, but the other is the seed.” (P. 11). The seed is the truth, and the fables which Rachel’s father shares with her are in fact cautionary tales.
Rachel grows up with openness to all cultures – her island home is a refuge for persecuted religions, including Jews, Mennonites, Moravians, and freed African slaves. She records the stories of the people around her, seeking the truth of the island. However, as she grows older, she is less tolerant of her son Camille’s beliefs. His positive experience at the Moravian school of his youth is a precursor to his eventual belief in anarchism. It was so frustrating to see Rachel change and refuse to accept Camille’s lifestyle when it was so similar to her own youth. Camille makes many of the same choices that Rachel did, and yet she condemns him. In trying to protect Camille from her own fate, in which she was shunned from the Jewish community, she only manages to isolate herself from her son and grandchildren.
Hoffman’s use of magic realism was most present in the romantic love stories of this novel. Love is referred to as an enchantment, unavoidable and irresistible. As Rachel falls in love with her young husband with an almost manic intensity, so too is Camille swept away by a love deemed inappropriate by society. Curses and charms are dispatched almost casually, causing more suffering in love than happiness.
Before meeting his eventual wife, Camille finds his own happiness in painting. The island around him serves as inspiration, but he is interested in painting more than just the landscape. Camille wishes to truly see what is around him, “to see what was there, but also what was underneath flesh and blood, core and pit, leaf and stem.” (p. 191). His wish to see the truth when painting is like his mother’s wish to access the seed, or truth, of a story. They are so alike and yet they cannot understand each other. It was incredible to be able to read this psychological approach to Pissarro’s painting style, and to understand how his contribution to Impressionist painting stemmed from his vision of the world as a puzzle: “the pieces dissolved inside my mind so that I then could put them back together to form a whole.” (p. 191). Even more meaningful was the importance of the legacy Rachel left for her son, and how the choices we all make affect those we love, for generations to come.
I received this novel from Netgalley, Goodreads First Reads and Simon & Schuster in exchange for an honest review.