The Marriage of Opposites, Alice Hoffman, Simon & Schuster, 2015, 362 pp
Back in 2000, I read a bunch of Alice Hoffman's novels. I was drawn to the magical element. But I was always a bit put off by the way she writes though I could never quite put my finger on why. Every writer has a voice and I just could not completely enjoy hers. So I gave her up.
When one of my reading groups chose The Marriage of Opposites, despite my doubts, I read it. The writing still bothered me but it is historical fiction set in two exotic locations and the story revolves around Rachel, who was the mother of Camille Pissarro, a famous painter in late 17th century Paris, now recognized as one of the fathers of Impressionism.
The novel opens when Rachel is a defiant young girl, making her own mother crazy as she refuses to follow the rules. The family are pillars of their small community of Jews on the Caribbean island of St Thomas. Descendants of Jews who escaped the Inquisition and were driven from Europe, the community's rules derived from the need to defend themselves and always be ready to flee in the face of oppression.
Rachel would have been happy to flee such a sequestered life. Her dream is to live in Paris and this is the story of how she eventually realized that dream. Of course, a lot of stuff had to happen first and decades passed. The island is rife with secret relationships, racial and religious prejudice, and a woman's life is hard.
Rachel and her best friend Jestine suffer together through marriages, childbirth, losses, and passions. Hoffman's writing in this book is best when she is describing the beauties of the island and later of Paris. Perhaps because she was writing about the childhood and development of an Impressionist painter, she took on the eyes of an artist.
Also, most of the characters are wonderfully developed and make the story come alive. I always admired her storytelling skills. In The Marriage of Opposites her story is so big, far ranging, and full of incident that I stopped being distracted by her awkward sentences and just read to find out what would happen to Rachel, her two husbands, and her numerous children. I also learned about another facet of Jewish life I had not known before.
Overall a fascinating read, though the two men in the reading group called it chick lit. The women laughed them off. If some men think any story about women who take charge of their own lives is chick lit, maybe it's time they got to actually know some "chicks."
(The Marriage of Opposites is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)