Books: The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman



I liked this book.  I have never read any novels by Alice Hoffman who is a prolific writer. Most of her 30+ books are aimed at a young adult audience and even though I read that genre, I somehow missed her.  In the Marriage of Opposites, she takes a stab at adult historical fiction with a novel about Rachel Pizzarro and her youngest son Camille Pissarro, one of the fathers of Impressionism and she does a good job.

Rachel grew up in a Jewish family on the island of St. Thomas and was married early to a much older widow with a merchant business in a marriage of convenience. She immediately became the stepmother of three children and had three of her own before he died. Because of the laws of the time, Rachel was unable to inherit any property or business so a young and distant relative from France (Fredrick) was dispensed to the island to oversee the business and estate.

Rachel and Fredrick fell in love but were shunned by the Jewish community for years because they were in the same family despite not being related by blood. They had 6 more children and were ultimately integrated back into the Jewish community. Rachel was a very independent woman and not a particularly loving or pleasant one. She was unhappy when her youngest son wanted to pursue art. Ultimately she relented and Camille went  to Paris to study art and later became one of the most famous painters of his generation.

The Marriage of Opposites is a fast and interesting read. However, it is not without some issues. Ms. Hoffman’s  flowery language can be over the top and occasionally distracting. I stopped counting how many times she used the color “Haint Blue” but it was a lot. She uses the color to portray “protection” and is an important anchor for the author but everything in the world isn’t Haint Blue. There are many side plots that keep repeating but are not well developed like the “herb” man in the woods. Some of the other plot lines are predictable – it was pretty obvious who Jestine’s parents are hundreds of pages before the reveal.

I don’t think I ever understood why Hoffman portrays Rachel as so distant and bitter but I got tired of it in the second half of the book. I also could have used a lot better understanding of Pissarro and why he made the decisions he did.  It is always tricky for an author to provide motivation and emotions for historical characters that don’t leave diaries and/or other communications but there should have been more here. Ms. Hoffman was particularly shallow with the male characters and her portrayal of the several mixed race women in the novel is light and reminded me of the stereotypical characters in the” Help” or “Gone with the Wind”.

Despite some of these issues, I would recommend the book. It is a fascinating look into a different time, culture and extraordinary family. The novel is easy to read and flows pretty well. I came away from it wanting to go back and visit both Paris and St. Thomas along with taking a tour of every museum with Pissarro art. That is the measure of a good read.


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