Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Wednesday, June 3, 2015: Maximum Shelf: The Marriage of Opposites

Simon & Schuster: The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

Simon & Schuster: The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

Simon & Schuster: The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

Simon & Schuster: A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan

The Marriage of Opposites

by Alice Hoffman

An innovator of Impressionism, Camille Pissarro is closely associated with France and the seminal artistic movement he helped inspire there. His start in life and in painting, though, happened a world away, on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, where he studied "waves, sand, birds, light" and dreamed in shades of blue.

In The Marriage of Opposites, Alice Hoffman unfolds the intriguing story of Pissarro's beginnings. She adeptly and beautifully imagines the tempestuous life of the artist's mother, Rachel Pomié, who defied convention for passion, and how his formative years on the island influenced him personally and professionally.  

Growing up on then Dutch-held St. Thomas in the early 1800s, Rachel refuses to follow the rules. Constantly at odds with her stern mother, a pillar in their community of refugee Jewish settlers who fled persecution, she longs for a life in Paris. But despite Rachel's intelligence and headstrong nature, her future is not her own to determine. In her early 20s, she is married off to Isaac Petit, an older widower with three children, saving her father's company with the union and derailing her hopes of leaving the island.

Instead Rachel is firmly tethered to St. Thomas, becoming the mother of six children and step-children and helping Isaac run his retail business. Then, six years after their marriage, her husband dies of a heart attack while she is pregnant. Women aren't legally allowed to own property, and the business passes to Isaac's relatives in France.

Hoffman begins The Marriage of Opposites by focusing on Rachel, a fascinatingly complex character who drives the narrative even when readers aren't hearing from her directly. The first time the story switches perspectives is with the arrival of Frédéric Pizzarro, Isaac's 22-year-old nephew, to oversee the business in St. Thomas. Fresh off a voyage from France, he is immediately smitten with the tropical island--and with Rachel.

The sultry St. Thomas that Hoffman describes is an exotic place with jasmine-scented air, gritty, bustling wharves, houses built on stilts and accented with brightly hued shutters, pink bougainvillea climbing stucco walls and parrots perched in tamarind trees. The Jewish population--called Creoles, Europeans who have never been in Europe--accounts for nearly half the island's inhabitants, who share the space with the native Caribs. But even on this "small speck of land" suspended in the sea, written and unwritten rules govern people's behavior.   

When Rachel and Frédéric begin a love affair, it ignites a scandal that's further fueled when the local religious official refuses to marry them. Although both are Jewish, they're members of the same family and therefore forbidden to wed one another. Even a dispensation from religious higher-ups in the Netherlands recognizing them as married fails to earn them acceptance. Being ostracized by the Jewish community doesn't deter Rachel, and she remains resolute in her decision to be with Frédéric no matter the cost. "As a girl I'd done what was necessary, but I was a girl no longer," she says. This time she chooses her spouse.

The Pizzarro family's status as outcasts is good luck as far as Rachel and Frédéric's third son, Camille, is concerned, since it gives him greater freedom to roam the island sketching and making his own pigments from petals and other natural ingredients. "This was my library, the landscape around me, luminous and white-hot or starry and black." Even as a young boy, he is drawn to create his art en plein air, a hallmark of Impressionism.

Much of the second half of The Marriage of Opposites is told from Camille's point of view--his overwhelming desire to become an artist, his connections to people and places on the island and his complicated, contentious relationship with his mother. Rachel privately admits to loving him the best of all her children, acknowledging that he is the most like her and has her faults. Their strong personalities often leave the two at odds. Even though Rachel appreciates "the sheer beauty of her son's artistry," she wants him to take an easier, more conventional path and encourages him to join the family business.

Like Rachel, her son refuses to follow others' dictates. "Our eyes were the same. Dark and filled with defiance," says Camille, who inherited his mother's rebellious spirit and courage to be a nonconformist--qualities that drive him to become a key figure of Impressionism, an avant-garde movement that upset the established art world and initially garnered harsh criticism. Eventually Rachel must make a choice: try to tie Camille to St. Thomas or support him in his artistic pursuits... and, along the way, fulfill her own long-held dream of traveling beyond the island's shores. (In a further show of individuality, the artist later changed his surname to the French spelling Pissarro.)

Hoffman's fans and those of historical fiction in general will savor The Marriage of Opposites, a vividly rendered account of how one woman's refusal to deny true love ultimately helped lead to an artistic revolution. When Camille first realizes his talent, he feels as if he has "come upon the core of the meaning of life, to discover and re-create beauty." While he created with paint and brush, Hoffman's medium is words. The Marriage of Opposites is a story as sublime as an Impressionist painting. --Shannon McKenna Schmidt

Simon & Schuster, $27.95, hardcover, 9781451693591, August 4, 2015

Simon & Schuster: Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving

Alice Hoffman: Creating an Artist's Sensibility

photo: Deborah Feingold

Alice Hoffman is the author of more than 30 works of fiction, including Practical Magic, The Red Garden, the Oprah's Book Club selection Here on Earth, The Museum of Extraordinary Things and The Dovekeepers. Her latest novel is The Marriage of Opposites. She lives near Boston.

What inspired the idea for The Marriage of Opposites? Were you of an admirer of Camille Pissarro's artwork, or of the Impressionists in general, prior to writing the novel?

I went to a Pissarro exhibit at the museum at Williams College and was surprised to discover how little I knew about the painter, even though I was a great admirer of his work. I discovered that he was Jewish, that he was raised on St. Thomas and that his mother, Rachel, was involved in one of the biggest scandals in the Jewish community on that island. The more I read about Pissarro the more interested I became in his family, and especially in the history of his mother. I began to think about what life experiences create an artist's sensibility, and how the actions of Pissarro's mother impacted his art and moved him toward his choices in his creative life as well as his personal life.

The central figure in the story, Rachel, is a fascinating woman, full of passion and contradictions. From a writer's perspective, what made her an interesting character to bring alive on the page?

I'm always interested in telling stories that have not been told, and very often women's stories have not been told. I could find certain facts about Rachel's life, but her essence remained elusive. For me as a novelist, it was a great opportunity to imagine her life. There seemed to be opinions about her, mostly negative, but the heart and soul of who this person was, was missing. That was what I was looking to find as I wrote about her.

So many times women's stories are lost to history because they're kept secret to protect the storyteller or the subject of the story, or because they're only shared with other women and not written down. Women's stories are most often an oral history, passed down through the generations. My desire was to give a voice to a character who had not fully been heard before and, in Rachel's case, who had been devalued and maligned because she had a rebel's soul. She acted as a man might have, and suffered for her choices and, I believe, most likely would not have lived any other way than as she did.

Tell us about the process of blending fact and fiction in The Marriage of Opposites.

I did as much research as I could, and then I just let go and imagined what Rachel's life might have been. The Marriage of Opposites is a novel based on facts, and I did my best to discover all that I could, but I hope the book, and Rachel, are given life via imagining. In some way, I think the character and the author become one being; we share a dream of what the world is like and who we are in the world. When you become so close to a character, it is a great loss to finish the book and to no longer share that world with her, and yet I feel personally enriched by entering into the world of the Pissarro family and the invented lives of their neighbors and friends

In the novel, Rachel and Camille have a contentious relationship. Was this true in real life? How pivotal was Rachel's role in her son becoming a renowned artist? 

From letters and historical archives, it seems that they did have a contentious relationship, and yet they were close as well. Rachel was often portrayed as a very difficult woman, the ultimate Jewish mother who was very demanding. But she also supported her son and his family financially throughout her life, and it seems that she followed him to Paris. My sense is that she greatly affected her son as a person and especially as an artist. They both were rebels, outsiders and individuals who did not follow the rules. I think this led Pissarro to become one of the fathers of Impressionism, to be fearless in his work and in his politics and to be as true to his own nature as possible, as Rachel was to hers.

Magical realism and references to fairy tales often infuse your work. In The Marriage of Opposites, how is the Caribbean folklore tradition--which includes mystical fables featuring birds and animals--an integral part of the story?

For me the most interesting literature always consists of fairytales and folk tales. They are culture's original stories, and they're often the stories grandmothers tell to grandchildren, the stories that are passed down generation after generation. I used both Caribbean folklore and Parisian fairytales, mostly fairy stories by Perrault, using a combination to give a sense of the flow of cultures in St. Thomas at that time. And, of course, Rachel begins to record and tell her own folktales in fairytales which indicate her emotional state. For me, fairytales have always been the most emotionally true stories. I think you can know Rachel through the stories that she loves and the stories that she shares with those she loves.

Two very different settings, the island of St. Thomas and Paris, France, provide the backdrops in The Marriage of Opposites. Have you visited these locales?

I've been to Paris many times and have always been enchanted by that city, as Rachel is. I've never been to St. Thomas. But for both locations, what I was writing about was a place which no longer existed, or only existed in the past. Interestingly, Rachel studies Paris for her whole life, and when she gets there, it's not at all what she expects it to be. It's been completely rebuilt, and to her surprise what she longs for is the past and St. Thomas. --Shannon McKenna Schmidt

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