Fiery an­tecedents of a great colourist

The Jewish Chronicle - - BOOKS -

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-

Camille Pis­sarro’s

(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


Les glaneuses

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