The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman
I read The Marriage of Opposites on a hot and humid Georgian Bay summer day when it seems a wonder that the hydro has not gone out in desperation. It is the sort of day I imagine the characters in Alice Hoffman’s most recent novel experience almost every day of their lives.
The Marriage of Opposites begins in St. Thomas – now one of the US Virgin Islands. We first meet Rachel Pomie in 1807, she is a girl in St. Thomas, at home with her parents, her father in the import/export business and her mother a woman generally disappointed with her life.
We get a little history lesson about St. Thomas, a place I knew nothing about except as a tax free port of call on a Caribbean cruise. St. Thomas, in the time of this novel, was owned by Denmark – and Denmark at this time was one of the few countries in Europe sympathetic to their Jewish population. Many Jews who left Europe at the time of the Spanish Inquisition emigrated first to the island of St. Domingue and later to St. Thomas where they were able to live in peace and practice their religion openly.
There is little slavery on St. Thomas at this time but of course there are staff – the white people employing the black people, and the many Creole mixed blood citizens of the island.
Rachel is the same age of the daughter of a servant in the home, Jestine. They spend a great deal of time together, considering themselves sisters, though of course by the time they are young women the expectations of society are far different for each of them. Rachel is well educated and dreams of escaping her small island home and living in Paris.
Rachel is married off to a suitable husband but Jestine is separated from the man she loves. What they do share is the culture of their island, the rich tradition of storytelling and the wonder of imagination. They often live very different lives but they are connected by more than they realize.
The Marriage of Opposites begins as the story of Rachel Pomie, and becomes the story of the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. It is only after Rachel becomes a young widow that she meets and falls in love with the man who will be Camille Pissarro’s father. Their love however is not considered acceptable, as he is the nephew of her late husband – though not related by blood. This is a relationship of great passion and the lovers marry regardless of the condemnation of the Jewish community.
Camille is one of the children born to Rachel during this marriage, and we follow his childhood years and his development as an artist along with the dramatic progression of the lives of Jestine and her family members, in both St. Thomas and eventually, Paris.
The Marriage of Opposites is a rich lush novel, the setting in both St, Thomas and Paris historically and geographically fascinating, the characters compelling, as the some of the secrets in this family are revealed and others only guessed at.