Book review: The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 September, 2015, 10:51pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 September, 2015, 10:51pm


If you can't get away from it all this summer, let your mind drift to the island of St Thomas. Immerse yourself in a fictional account of the life of the mother who helped give birth to an art movement. Time-travel to Rachel Pizzarro's early 1800s childhood in the island's tight-knit Jewish community. Learn the history of historic St Thomas synagogue's sand floor, which Jews forced into hiding used to muffle the sound of prayer.

The prolific Alice Hoffman's latest work is rich with details that transport readers to a tropical paradise. The Marriage of Opposites invites comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but Hoffman follows her own star.

The book shifts between first person and third person; the first-person passages read swiftly. Chapter headings noting place, date and character provide structure that make shifts in point of view less intrusive.

Although women of the time are not educated, Rachel's father gives her access to his library, and she pines to see Paris. Rachel comes of age believing she is destined for something more than her apparent lot in life: marriage to a financially stable man. From what she has seen, "marriage was hard labour, not a fate I looked forward to".

Real-world problems of the era - trade difficulties, cholera and social pressures - underlie the conflicts in the book.

At first, Rachel resents a male relative who is summoned from Paris to run the family business. Her mother nixes the notion of Rachel's leadership with a comment painfully reminiscent of the time: "You could never accept the fact that you were a woman and nothing more."

Hoffman captures the early stages of an infatuation with glances, stirrings and imaginings that give rise to increasingly steamy descriptions as passion grows into a forbidden love that does not hew to religious dogma or social convention. Rachel pays a price for love: ostracism. Her resentment colours the entire family's life.

When her son, Jacobo Camille, is 10, Rachel asks him if he thinks God can hear his father's prayers, which are said in the yard because he is not welcome at the synagogue. Camille replies: "I think he hears God."

"My mother looked at me hard, to see if I was making a joke. I wasn't. I thought perhaps it was more important to listen than to be heard. I kept a vigil into the night listening to the moths at the window, the frogs in the puddles, the wind that came from across the ocean."

The boy's artistic talents compel him to go to Paris for education, but his radical views are shaped by the injustices at home. He is, of course, Camille Pizzarro (typically spelled Pissarro), a pivotal figure in French Impressionism and post-Impressionism.

Hoffman elevates what could have been little more than a summer getaway book to a work of art.

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman (Simon & Schuster)

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