Sunday 30 September 2018

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Marriage of Opposites, Alice Hoffman (2016)

I can only imagine Alice Hoffman’s excitement when she stumbled across the historical story that sits at the centre of her 2016 novel, The Marriage of Opposites. She went in search of French impressionist Camille Pissarro and found (instead?) the fascinating story of his mother, born Rachel Pomié.

The Marriage of Opposites (2016)
Raised on St Thomas in the 1800s, Rachel is part of a close-knit and judgmental community of Jews, who have fled Europe for the relative freedom of island life. Here, black former slaves, white Europeans and the Jewish population live side by side in relative harmony, provided people stay with their own ‘kind’.

Always headstrong, Rachel is soon at odds with her people when, as a young widow, she is thrown into proximity with her late husband’s nephew, Frédéric. Their love—destructive as it is fecund—sits at the heart of the novel, along with the question, what has bewitched him—Rachel or the island itself?

The novel at its best is a landscape of St Thomas—rich, multisensory, at once timeless and of its time—with a multigenerational drama played out against it. But the vast time period it covers is also a weakness. Neither male point-of-view character—Frédéric, or Camille Pissaro himself—is as convincing or passionate as Rachel, and the broad strokes of the work hamper the pacing. This is a novel you live, rather than race, through, luxuriating in prose that can at times weigh a reader down.

Alice Hoffman (1952- )
I couldn’t help but think Hoffman might have been better to narrow her vision to the earlier sections. Perhaps she felts bound to the more ‘sellable’ story of the famed French artist, when the heart of the novel she wrote lives elsewhere?

All in, you’ll love The Marriage of Opposites if you enjoy multi-generational sagas and being transported to more exotic locales than your average nineteenth-century drawing room. For me, the name ‘Camille Pissarro’ used to conjure images of Paris on a rainy day. Now it will also evoke the lizard basking in the sun, the herb man lurking in his hut and the turtles trundling up the sand.

Which novel would you like the Secret Victorianist to read next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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