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.