Friday, July 31, 2015

The Marriage of Opposites

Title:  The Marriage of Opposites
Author:  Alice Hoffman
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2015. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1451693591 / 978-1451693591

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I always left my window open at night, despite the warnings I'd been given."

Favorite Quote:  "There are those who say that heaven and hell are not so far apart. They are not at opposite ends of the world beyond ours, only a step away from one another."

Rachel Pomié. Rachel Pomié Petit. Rachel Pomié Petit Pizzarro. Formidable names that track the trajectory of the life of a formidable woman. Rachel Pizzarro's claim to fame, so to speak, is the fact that she was the mother of Camille Pissarro, world-renowned artist who was one of the founders of the Impressionist art movement. Much has been written about Camille Pissarro, who was originally born Jacobo Camille Pizzarro in 1830 on the island of St. Thomas. (No, that is not a typo. Yes, he changed the spelling of his name.) Very little has previously been written on Rachel Pizzaro.

Note that this is a work of historical fiction not a biography. As the afterword of the book states, "Rachel Pizzarro's life in my imagined story mirrors the known facts about her as closely as possible ... The stories of the Pizzarros' West Indian employees, neighbors, and friends are invented..." But what a story Alice Hoffman builds off the few facts of Rachel Pizzaro's life!

The background of Rachel's life is the tropical St. Thomas setting, her Jewish faith, and her friendship with the African maid's daughter. Religious persecution, religious bigotry, mysticism, a small community, racism, slavery, and the business of rum and molasses provide the undercurrents to Rachel's life. A strong-willed nature, friendship, and love in its myriad, complicated forms provide the mainstay of her life. The story is one about rules and constrictions and about who choose to live by their own convictions, sometimes happily so and sometimes with dire results.

The first half of the book is entirely Rachel's story - her childhood, her acrimonious relationship with her mother, her young marriage that is more a business merger, her jump into motherhood when she is but a girl herself, the discovery of the love of her life, and the trials and happiness that love brings. Along the way are countless joys and sorrows.

Almost exactly halfway through the book, the story shifts to Camille Pissarro's perspective. The switch is abrupt and jarring. I almost step away from the book because I don't want to know about Camille Pissaro; I want to know more about Rachel. I persevere, and the threads of the story come together, coming full circle back to Rachel. The ending is not what I expected and not very satisfactory. I want more, but since that is indeed the history, it is what it is.

The story moves at a languid, tropical pace. Alice Hoffman's masterful writing brings the story together word by word. It's as if stitch by stitch, a whole tapestry emerges. I am submerged into the beautiful setting, feeling the heat of the sun, the wonder of the sea, and beauty of the jungle. I am also completely engaged into the joys and heartaches of not just Rachel but also this entire small community. This is true whether I agree with the characters of not or even whether I like them at the moment or not. Regardless, I am captivated by the writing and left wishing there was still more to read.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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