Readers of Alice Hoffman’s other novels—including last year’s Museum Of Extraordinary Things and 2011’s The Dovekeepers—will notice plenty of familiar themes in her latest work, The Marriage Of Opposites. There are strong women, persecuted Jews, defiant lovers, and a bit of mysticism, all set against the backdrop of a tumultuous historic period. But Hoffman can be forgiven for dipping in the same well so many times, because she uses those themes so masterfully.
The expansive novel starts in St. Thomas in the early 1800s but eventually spreads to Paris, providing glimpses along the way of Caribbean slave revolts, the U.S. Civil War, the reign of Napoleon III, and the dawn of the Impressionist artistic movement. Most of the action follows Rachel Pomie, part of a community of Sephardic Jews that found relative security in the Dutch colony. Rachel is a sharp-tongued girl constricted by the conventions of her faith that prevent women from going into business or owning property. When her father’s shipping enterprise falters, she’s married off to a much older man who’s still in love with his first wife. Rachel is herself widowed at 30, which serves as both a crisis for her family and opportunity to live the life she postponed out of duty. The book also takes turns from the perspective of Rachel’s second husband, her son, and her best friend’s daughter, sharing each character’s struggles with the conventions of the time and leisurely weaving their experiences together to paint a portrait of how a society gradually changes.
Hoffman lusciously describes the island with its oppressive heat and sparkling seas though Rachel’s eyes, painting a paradise that’s ironic considering how Rachel resents her surroundings, preferring to dream of the rainy days and fancy European clothes she might find if she could travel to her family’s former home in Paris. Hoffman’s St. Thomas is a place filled with delightful mysteries making it easy to emphasize with Frederic, Rachel’s second husband, who’s bewitched by the island soon after reaching its shores. Even as the novel’s characters change dramatically, the can still appreciate the magic of a beach where sea turtles lay their eggs by moonlight year after year, and the brilliant red flowers that seem to light the landscape on fire when they bloom. Those are natural miracles, but Hoffman also throws in a touch of the mystical to enliven a story that otherwise relies on largely mundane conflicts. There’s a hermit who sells healing herbs in exchange for a kiss and secluded caves where the abandoned wives of pirates hid from those who might ostracize them and whisper their tales to a young Rachel, who possesses the ability to see spirits. Rachel is in turn protected by dead Jewish wives as she braves the difficulties of childbirth and attempts to earn acceptance from her community, despite taking actions that mark her as an exile. She believes that her best friend’s mother watches over her in the form of a pelican. The supernatural touches are subtle enough that it’s possible they’re all imagined—that the ghosts are just figures that Rachel looks to for strength while feeling literally haunted by the woman her first husband loved—and that ambiguity strengthens their impact.
A mix of people from across Europe along with former and current African slaves, St. Thomas provides a perfect setting for an examination of how traditions blend and the way social structures are maintained and broken down. Interracial love affairs are common, if kept secret. Rachel’s own best friend, Jestine, is the product of one such relationship, but her African blood keeps her from being a suitable wife for Rachel’s cousin, Aaron. When the two have a child anyway, the girl’s light skin makes it possible for her to pass as European. She gets her own turn as a narrating character, bringing into play deep conflicts about personal history and racial identity.
By following Rachel for decades and observing her through the eyes of her son, Camille, who would grow into the renowned painter Camille Pissarro, Hoffman shows that things and people are rarely as simple as we might like them to be. Rachel despises her mother and her mother’s socially cunning best friend, but Camille sees his own mother in a similar light—too traditional and hypocritical. It’s easy to see the correct side of a dispute from hindsight, so while Rachel is clearly right early in the book when she seeks the love and power her traditional community would forbid her, she’s also clearly wrong in trying to stifle the creative genius of her son so she can force him into running the family store. Hoffman’s chapters on Camille show a mix of deep research about the painter’s history and creative interpretations about how a revolutionary artist is shaped by environment and his own personal drives. Camille doesn’t paint the world as it is but how he sees it, tingeing portraits with the color of emotions he sees in his subjects. In one of the most evocative scenes of the book, Rachel comes across an abandoned home that Camille has filled with scenes of Paris and St. Thomas, literally blending the two worlds in which he’s lived, and she is forced to come to terms that she has no more control over her son’s fate than her mother had over hers.
Cultural blending is always found in a place’s food, and Hoffman spends plenty of time describing the dishes of St. Thomas and ascribing them significance within her plot. There’s a traditional porridge served to children that Rachel and Jestine eat together even as adults to reminisce about simpler times, but that Camille comes to resent as a symbol that his parents still view him as immature. There are the terrible desserts a wizened old cook makes, loved only by her mistress who leaves the cook all her riches in return, sparking a conflict with the wealthy woman’s estranged daughter. Molasses permeates everything as the island’s primary economic driver, a way to sweeten the most bitter dish like desserts made from a gnarled tree Rachel brought over from France whose fruit has grown bitter in the inhospitable tropical climate.
The Marriage Of Opposites doesn’t have the dramatic conflicts of Museum Of Extraordinary Things’ disastrous fires or The Dovekeepers’ historic siege. But in some ways that makes the book more impressive for what Hoffman has done with her subject matter. By putting momentous events firmly the backdrop, Hoffman is able to focus entirely on smaller dramas and produce a captivating look at the binding power of tradition and the cost of rebellion.