Defiance and Wonder: Alice Hoffman’s The Marriage of Opposites

Nineteenth-century Jewish life in the Caribbean is examined in this story of an indomitable woman and her artist son.

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

The Marriage of Opposites. By Alice Hoffman. Aug. 2015. 384p. Simon & Schuster, $27.95 (9781451693591).

It may seem as though Hoffman, best-selling author of more than 30 books for adults and teens, magics spellbinding fiction out of thin air, but in fact, she often improvises on historical events and figures. In The Museum of Extraordinary Things (2014), she fictionalizes New York City’s catastrophic 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and its ripple effect on an Orthodox Jewish family. In The Dovekeepers ( 2011), she presents an unusual perspective on the 70 CE siege of Masada, where 900 Jews held off Roman soldiers. Now, in The Marriage of Opposites, she offers a rare look at nineteenth-century Jewish life in the Caribbean and discloses the dramatic family history of a seminal French painter.

The novel begins in 1807 on the island of St. Thomas, a glorious natural paradise shadowed by the horrors of slavery, which, though outlawed, persists amid virulent racism. The Jewish community, made up of refugees from anti-Semitic atrocities in Europe, seeks safety in strict religious conformity. And no woman, no matter her background, has any rights, not even to her own children.

Young, headstrong, yet dreamy Rachel Pomié embodies two evocative traits shared by many of Hoffman’s irresistible women characters. She is awestruck by nature, reveling in and revering the island’s vital, lush beauty, and she is mystically attuned to mysterious forces, especially the spirits of the dead. She is also a true original. Because her Jewish family has roots in France, that country becomes her imagination’s polestar as she memorizes maps of Paris and reads voraciously in her father’s extensive library. Ardently independent and sharp-tongued, she refuses to abide by racial or gender restrictions, cleaving to her best friend, Jestine, the daughter of their African cook, and turning away all suitors until her family’s finances plunge, and her panicked father arranges her marriage to Isaac, a much older widower with three young children.

We see the world afresh as a perpetual dance
of radiance and darkness, form and space.

Rachel doesn’t love her husband, but she adores his children, and she and Isaac have four more together. Then he dies, leaving Rachel without a home or livelihood. She is perfectly capable of running their shop, but legally, she must defer to her husband’s family, waiting for a representative to arrive from Paris to take charge of her and her children’s futures. Enter handsome, good-hearted, diligent 22-year-old Frédéric, who is expecting to meet an old lady, his aunt, technically, by marriage. Instead he is lightning-struck by voluptuous, tough, and impertinent 29-year-old Rachel. The scorching is mutual, scandalous, and condemned as incestuous and apostate by their Jewish neighbors. Hoffman discerns a mythic dimension in the intensity of their passion, the anguish of their ostracism, and their determination to secure permission to marry as their children, including their highly unusual third son, Camille, are born.

Rachel could easily have remained the focus of this beguiling novel, but as Hoffman begins to write from the point of view of the color-bedazzled, sly, rebellious, and charming boy who will become the renowned painter Camille Pissarro, a leader and mentor among the impressionists, we see the world afresh as a perpetual dance of radiance and darkness, form and space. Of course, Hoffman herself is an artist, rendering each setting with sumptuous and incandescent detail and capturing every shade and hue of suffering and bliss. As witty as she is lyrical, she writes ricocheting dialogue. This rhapsodic blend of keenly observed historical elements and vibrantly fabulistic invention generates an entrancing saga of sacrifice, forbidden loves, betrayals, and family tragedies endured in a world fractured by religion, class, and race and redeemed by art and by love. Hoffman is at her resplendent best in this trenchant and revelatory tale of a heroic woman and her world-altering artist son.

This review was first published in the May 15, 2015, issue of Booklist.



About the Author:

Donna Seaman is adult books editor at Booklist. Her radio interviews are collected in Writers on the Air: Conversations about Books (2005). Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Donna.

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