The historical fiction novel The Marriage of Opposites is a brilliantly intriguing novel by Alice Hoffman. The novel takes place on St. Thomas in 1807 and follows the life of the rebellious, imaginative and strong-minded young Jewish girl named Rachel as she navigates her small strict Jewish community. Hoffman produces remarkable imagery of a wild landscape, and her ability to include all the different cultural aspects of St. Thomas during that time period is phenomenal.
The story of Rachel Pissaro’s life and her son, painter Camille Pissaro, who is deemed the father of impressionism, not only addresses social issues such as racism, religious persecution and classism, but also the complex relationship of parents and their children. The reader sees the lack of relationship between Rachel and her mother as a source of conflict and misery for them both due to Rachel’s mother’s strict rules of decorum and propriety and Rachel’s rebellious spirit that comes from not fitting in with society’s expectations of her. When Rachel grows up and has a son who is much like her, without realizing, she puts the same pressures on her son to fit in, without the religious restrictions.
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The Marriage of Opposites – A Multi-Generational Lack of Communication
What the reader sees is that Rachel’s parenting choices are made out of fear and with a lot of love. It makes the reader think about Rachel’s mother, and whether her actions and words towards Rachel, though harsh and unloving, were made from the same feelings. This multi-generational circle of lack of communication and self-awareness really struck me. How much do I misunderstand my own parents? How much will my children misunderstand my own actions towards them? Will I push them to do something, be something, because my own dreams did not come true, or their way of seeing things is even more radical than my own parents think mine are?
Another aspect of the book that intrigued me was the history of the island and the different social classes, religious groups and cultural groups that made up this colonized island. During the book’s time period, St. Thomas was owned by Denmark, which allowed freedom of Religion for the Jewish population who fled Europe under persecution. Also on the island were former and current slaves and many French men and women.
Despite the diversity of the island and its history of opening its arms to the persecuted, it has a very segregated society and one that is intolerable of mixing races and going outside one’s religion. Rachel’s navigation through this culture is wrought with conflict, but as a strong-minded woman who embraces the unusual and people of all kinds, she does not accept it. This is the reason why I enjoyed Rachel’s character so much. She’s tough, witty, spiritual and a great friend, mother and wife. She follows her own heart, but accepts her own decisions and follows through, despite what it might cost her.
As a reviewer and a lover of books, I could go on and on about this book. I was impacted by all that The Marriage of Opposites offers to the reader. It is a book that makes the reader wants to read it over and over again to understand all the layers that Alice Hoffman brilliantly weaves into the story. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves historical fiction. It reminded me of Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits, one of my favorites, with its strong female character, wild landscape and religious mysticism.
More Books by Alice Hoffman
Other books by Alice Hoffman include Dove Keepers, Here on Earth, Practical Magic, The Red Garden, The Story Sisters, and many more. Visit her official website.
Buy The Marriage of Opposites on Amazon.