Published by Simon & Schuster
Publication date: August 4th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Literary
Beginning in 1795 on the island of St. Thomas The Marriage of Opposites is Alice Hoffman’s newest novel. It is the story of Rachel, a strong willed and intelligent woman, bound by the confines of the times but with dreams of traveling far away to Paris and living a life on her own terms. As the daughter of a wealthy Jewish businessman she is brought up as young ladies were but also, thanks to her father’s belief in her intelligence, she is taught math and accounting in order that she understand the family business even if she will not be allowed to inherit it. It is a bitter disappointment then when she is 22 and that same father marries her off to a much older widower with three children in order to save the family’s store. When her husband dies and his nephew comes to the island to settle his estate and take over the business they fall in love and marry, much to the disapproval of the island’s Jewish community. That Frédéric is eight years younger than Rachel turns that disapproval into a shunning leaves them isolated from their friends and neighbors. Still, they find happiness in their marriage and in their children, one of whom is as headstrong and creative as Rachel herself. He is her favorite child and her greatest trial.
As is Hoffman’s habit, the bones of The Marriage of Opposites are fact. In this case, Rachel is the mother of Camille Pissaro, one of France’s greatest Impressionist painters. Hoffman weaves his path in with Rachel’s as he too struggles against his parents’ expectations. He rebels against Rachel and finds a confidante in her best friend, Jestine, the daughter of Rachel’s family cook. She has her own sorrows and secrets and shares them with him, expanding the novel from the stories of one family to many. When Camille finally escapes to Paris he vows to find answers for Jestine and, possibly, for himself.
Hoffman has the most beautiful ability to pace a novel in the way that humans interact. There are secrets, lots of them, in The Marriage of Opposites, but in the characters’ conversations they take years and even decades to come out, even between the closest of friends. They start and stop, are partially revealed and then left alone. It isn’t until the novel’s final pages that the husk of secrecy is taken down to its kernel and the truth of Rachel’s family history is revealed. This is how real life moves so it is a sweet counterpoint to the magical realism that suffuses Hoffman’s work. In The Marriage of Opposites it is the witchy Rachel with her long dark hair and dark eyes who attracts the spirits and treats them with the honor they deserve, so they respect her in turn. At the same time, this woman so attuned to the supernatural world cannot show any understanding to her son when he falls in love, despite having been reviled for her own choice in love.
Using conundrums, misunderstandings, social mores, and the inexplicable nature of the human heart Hoffman once again creates a novel richly populated with complex characters and places so finely drawn they can be felt. In one of my favorite Hoffman novels The Dovekeepers, it is the harsh life of the arid desert that is so well rendered the dust seems to float off the page but now it is the lush vibrancy of St. Thomas that welcomes the reader. But while the location is an idyllic one it is the people in The Marriage of Opposites who are the main attraction and who provide the great escape.