Fiery antecedents of a great colourist
BEST-SELLING AMERICAN author Alice Hoffman’s latest novel, The Marriage of Opposites, is a fictionalised retelling of how the artist Camille Pissarro — born Jacob Abraham Camille on the Caribbean island of St Thomas — became one of the most influential Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. But Camille does not appear until the second half of the novel. The first, superior part deals with the fiery, complicated relationship between his parents.
In Hoffman’s account, the outspoken, cerebral Rachel Pomie hails from one of the island’s premier Jewish families. Forced to dress the part of the respectable lady, she is an undeclared feminist at a time when women could own no property.Sheisneverhappierthanwhen exploringStThomas’physicalsplendour with her friend, Jestine, of whose own, heartrending story we also learn.
After years of suffocating under the stern glare of her community, Rachel’s decision to marry a French émigré leads to her being ostracised. For Frédérick, on paper a suitable match, is not merely several years her junior — a gap that would be remarked on to this day, but that was highly shocking in the early 1800s — but the nephew of Rachel’s late husband. Passionately in love, they are thwarted at every turn, with rabbis slamming doors and the congregation spurning their company. Yet they refuse to give up.
Frédérick i s a half-formed character; Rachel is the one with the determinat i o n . L i k e Scarlett O’Hara, she sees tomorrow as another day; her resourcefulness saves the family time and again. It is in her son Jacob that she finally encounters somebody as stubborn as herself, and their prickly relationship, especially after they leave St Thomas for Paris, forms the concluding part of Hoffman’s story.
Hoffman doesn’t go in for high stakes; the lovers are more soap-opera protagonists than Romeo and Juliet. At the same time, her attempt to draw a connection between Pissarro’s child-
(The gleaners), 1889 hood and his future as a radical artist feels forced. But the narrative is propelled by the character of Rachel, a wonderful, modern heroine; tough as nails and defiant at every turn.
The authenticity of the setting, characters and events is questionable. For example, while Frédérick was certainly Jewish, the real Rachel’s lineage is the subject of debate. And the remarkably harmonious relations she describes between Jews and non-Jews, and especially between whites and blacks, is possibly fanciful at a time when slavery was still prevalent.
But even if the story is a fairy-tale, the Jewish life on the island described by Hoffman is not. St Thomas was at the time under Danish rule, home to a bustling Jewish community buoyed the sugar trade, and the synagogue built there in 1833 is still standing today. It’s a forgotten part of Jewish history, and one Hoffman brings to life in vivid, fascinating detail.
This is a light, enjoyable book, and Rachel is a welcome addition to the roll of Jewish heroines.
Jennifer Lipman is a freelance journalist