The Mar­riage of Opposites

  • Review
By – May 19, 2015

Alice Hoffman’s new nov­el, The Mar­riage of Oppo­sites, begins and ends as if in a dream. Telling the fic­tion­al­ized life of Rachel Pis­sar­ro, the moth­er of the famous Impres­sion­ist Camille Pis­sar­ro, the sto­ry unwinds slow­ly — begin­ning with Rachel in her youth, grow­ing up in a strict Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty on the island of St. Thomas in the ear­ly 1800s. Rachel is a head­strong girl who becomes a fierce woman and moth­er of eleven, ini­tial­ly forced into an arranged mar­riage at a very young age. But when her old­er hus­band dies, she soon falls in love with her husband’s nephew, and her defi­ance and strength to be with the one she loves man­ages to super­sede her community’s desire for dis­cre­tion and adher­ence to custom.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Rachel’s own feel­ings do not allow her to be under­stand­ing of her children’s. Indeed, her belief that her love is spe­cial and unique — that she is spe­cial and unique — hin­ders her from being able to lis­ten when her son Camille desires to become an artist. And her long­ing to run away from St. Thomas and move to Paris does not allow her to under­stand her own son’s need to escape as well.

What the Mar­riage of Oppo­sites clear­ly illus­trates is how strength of char­ac­ter and the pas­sage of time can allow for bend­ing the rules set by soci­ety. Both Rachel and Camille inspire changes in their sur­round­ings: Rachel with the com­mu­ni­ty she grew up in, and Camille with his moth­er. Both are head­strong and deter­mined, and most impor­tant­ly, con­vinced of their own cor­rect­ness. They are both react­ing against a dis­ap­prov­ing fig­ure in their lives, and man­age to stay com­mit­ted to their belief — one for love, the oth­er for art. But it is inevitable as time itself — they seek to do the oppo­site of what their par­ents taught them, no mat­ter how much, in the end, they end up fol­low­ing them to very sim­i­lar fates. And if Alice Hoff­man has one mes­sage to leave behind, it is that inevitably, the peo­ple and ghosts we are run­ning from are who we even­tu­al­ly become.

Set in the beau­ti­ful and vivid­ly drawn island of St. Thomas, The Mar­riage of Oppo­sites cre­ates an intense world of polit­i­cal strife, famil­ial anguish, and, of course, heart­break­ing love that makes this clear: the world that one is pre­sent­ed with is nev­er a clear reflec­tion of real­i­ty. Every­one has secrets.

Evie Saphire-Bern­stein is the pro­gram direc­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. She grad­u­at­ed from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go with a B.A. in Eng­lish and a minor in Jew­ish Stud­ies. Before join­ing the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil team in 2015, she spent a year and a half work­ing with­in the Con­ser­v­a­tive Move­ment as the Net­work Liai­son for the Schechter Day School Net­work. She is a recent trans­plant to New York City, after liv­ing in Chica­go for most of her life. In her spare time, Evie is a writer and blogger.

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