An Unacknowledged Resemblance

The Marriage of Opposites, by Alice Hoffman, (Simon & Schuster), 384 pages, release date 4 August, 2015

Alice Hoffman’s The Marriage of Opposites provides an engaging blend of historically inspired fiction and magical realism. The history: the life stories of Rachel Pomié Petit Pizzarro and of her son, Jacobo Camille Pizzarro, better know as the artist Camille Pissarro. The magic: life on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, where both Rachel and Camille are born.

Rachel is a member of St. Thomas’s small Jewish community—a community that values conformity as a result of the historical oppression it has faced. Community members must not  engage in behaviors that would draw the attention of those outside the community. Rachel chafes at these expectations and dreams of leaving St. Thomas for France, longing for a life of urban glamor and personal freedom.

Educated by her father, Rachel knows how to run the family business, though laws at the time prevent her from doing so. She accepts the marriage her father arranges for her in order to bolster the family business, which means becoming a stepmother to three children closer to her own age than her husband is.

After her first husband’s death, one of her husband’s nephews from France is sent to run the family business, even though Rachel can do so quite capably herself. Rachel and this cousin, Frédéric, fall in love, scandalizing their community as the relationship is considered incestuous, regardless of the fact that the two are only related by marriage, not blood. Refusing to conform, Rachel and Frédéric battle for years to win the community’s permission to wed, ultimately finding success, if not respect.

The irony of this story is that Camille is every bit the rebel his mother was—and she pushes him to conform to community expectations, despite her own refusal to do so. Camille is unsuccessfully placed in varying positions in the family business, but what he really wants to do is paint. After several years studying art in Paris, Camille finds conformity even more impossible.

All this summarizes the central story of Marriage of Opposites, but the book’s real strength is not plot so much as voice. The novel includes two perspectives communicated in third person: those of Frédéric and of Lydia, daughter of one of Rachel’s friends. More importantly, there are also two first person voices: Rachel’s and Camille’s. Readers have a privilege neither Rachel nor Camille has—the opportunity to see how deeply similar these two spirits in conflict really are.

This novel is interesting for its glimpse into a particular moment in history, but it is compelling because of the way Hoffman fleshes out her two central characters.

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