Nov­el­ist Alice Hoff­man imag­ines life of Pis­sarro’s mom

The China Post - - ARTS - BY ANN LEVIN

Mid­way through Alice Hoff­man’s latest novel, “The Mar­riage of Op­po­sites” (Si­mon & Schuster), the mother of the great im­pres­sion­ist pain­ter Camille Pis­sarro takes her 2-week-old son into the for­est to find a medicine man she hopes can cure him of the mal­ady that has kept him from eat­ing or sleep­ing since birth.

The herbal­ist, who lives in a shack the bud­ding artist will one day use as a makeshift stu­dio, stud­ies the in­fant, then ren­ders his di­ag­no­sis. There’s noth­ing the mat­ter with him, he says. “He just has other things on his mind ... he sees what you can’t see.”

A 2- week- old? Un­likely. But re­al­ism is be­side the point in “The Mar­riage of Op­po­sites,” Hoff­man’s vivid and ab­sorb­ing ac­count of the emo­tion­ally tur­bu­lent life of the mother of one of the 19th cen­tury’s great­est pain­ters.

Don’t ex­pect a straight­for­ward bi­og­ra­phy. Hoff­man mixes fact and fic­tion to pro­duce a richly imag­ined ta­pes­try shot through with her sig­na­ture blend of folk­lore, fairy dust and ro­man­tic pas­sion.

Rachel Pomie Petit Piz­zarro — her son changed his last name af­ter set­tling in France — was born in 1795 into a pros­per­ous Jewish fam­ily on St. Thomas, then a Dan­ish colony, now part of the U.S. Vir­gin Is­lands.

She died at age 94 in Paris af­ter rais­ing 11 chil­dren from two mar­riages: the first, an ar­ranged match to a much older man who wid­owed her at 29, and the sec­ond, a love af­fair for the ages that scan­dal­ized the Jewish com­mu­nity be­cause Fred­eric Piz­zarro — Camille’s fa­ther — was a nephew by mar­riage and seven years younger than she was.

The novel, set in St. Thomas and Paris, ex­plores the com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ships on the is­land among its Euro­pean set­tlers and the de­scen­dants of African slaves. It’s their se­crets and lies that drive the plot for­ward, as well as the eter­nal mys­tery of how such a mon­u­men­tal tal­ent as Pis­sarro’s is formed.

The novel sug­gests that the ex­tra­or­di­nary light on St. Thomas, its lush land­scape, blue-green sea and hard­work­ing res­i­dents, all played a part in the de­vel­op­ment of his ground­break­ing style and even­tual rep­u­ta­tion as the fa­ther of im­pres­sion­ism, an artist with a strong sym­pa­thy for the work­ing man.

By bring­ing to life the lit­tle­known story of Pis­sarro’s mother and de­pict­ing her as a force of na­ture in her own right, Hoff­man also sug­gests that this pain­ter now beloved by tens of mil­lions of art lovers around the world has his mom to thank, at least in part, for his shim­mer­ing tal­ent.

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