The Marriage of Opposites: A Novel

  • By Alice Hoffman
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 365 pp.
  • Reviewed by K.H. Macomber
  • September 25, 2015

Conjuring a lush, Caribbean backstory for a real-life French Impressionist.

When asked where she finds the sparks that beget her novels, author Alice Hoffman points to the overlooked details in history’s margins, as well as the stories that rarely make it into the history books. It’s these tales, more often than not family legends or tribal lore passed down by mothers to children, that shape her work.

In the writing of her latest novel, The Marriage of Opposites, Hoffman discovered the sparks as a curious string of factoid pearls, one after another. First, while attending a Williams College art exhibit, she noticed that the French Impressionist Camille Pissarro was born not in France, as she'd assumed, but on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. From there, she learned that St. Thomas had been part of the Danish West Indies, and was renowned in the 1800s as a refuge for freed slaves, religious-freedom seekers, and members of the Jewish diaspora who had been fleeing Europe since the Inquisition.

Hoffman subsequently discovered that Pissarro’s widowed mother had shocked the European-Jewish elders of St. Thomas when she and the nephew of her deceased husband — a young man who'd come to the island from France to settle his uncle’s affairs — fell in love and married, an act explicitly against the rules of their faith. With this rich cache of largely forgotten drama, Hoffman knew she had the threads with which to weave an extraordinary work of fiction.

And what a gift of a tale she has written! Using facts as her foundation, Hoffman has painted a mesmerizing scenery and imagined a collection of supporting characters to describe protagonist Rachel Pomie Petit Pizzarro’s rich and remarkable life. The Marriage of Opposites begins in Rachel’s voice; she is a young girl, headstrong and mature beyond her years, who sees all and understands far more than the grownups around her suspect.

This 12-year-old narrator provides a primer on her island’s past and describes the education she has gleaned both from her father’s library and at his side (an unusual act of generosity by an early-19th-century businessman toward his daughter). This education gave her an appreciation for subjects as varied as the inner details of the family business, the stories of Perrault and Mother Goose, and the streetscapes of faraway Paris.

In addition, Hoffman portrays young Rachel as the self-appointed collector of the island women’s stories: tales of animal magic, mysteries solved, and grudges held, along with rumors of spells concocted and ghosts who haunt the people. Rachel writes down everything she learns from the matriarchs but hides her notebooks from her disapproving mother, a woman impossible to please and leery of any behaviors that stray from the social mores of the day.

Years later, after Rachel has regaled her own children with her collected lore, she finds herself similarly fearful that they might stray from the rules she once found so stifling. Alas, the generations seem destined to inflict the same constraints on their children that were once inflicted on them, and the children inevitably suffer from these misguided, if well-intentioned, protections. That is, until they turn their backs on their elders’ expectations, pave their own way, and become their own storytellers.

Hoffman’s stellar imagination, along with the mixture of history and magic that is a primary signature of her writing, is prevalent throughout this novel. Where historians list names and dates and births and deaths, she expands her period tales with infusions of sights and scents, flora and fauna, and, often, magical messages. The pages of The Marriage of Opposites nearly ooze with the heat and humidity of island life, particularly life in the Caribbean borne within the constraints of whalebone corsets and starched collars.

The tropical conditions are a powerful element here; superstitions and witchcraft hang in the moisture, dripping from the rafters. There are also flashbacks that provide continuity throughout the novel: long-lost memories of water, of turtles, of unidentifiable sounds, and of visions of symbolic birds that appear at auspicious junctures. These sensory memories ebb and flow like the tide, returning when the moon is full and their power is most potent.  

To invest in both a fictionalized history and an imagined magical backstory takes a suspension of disbelief that might be beyond some readers' comfort zones. But Hoffman’s capacity to blend stories based on real events with those of otherworldly powers is seemingly infinite. In fact, what might make this novel a bit hard to navigate is not its fantastical elements, but rather the multiple voices in which it's told. The magic may be expected, but the changes in point of view are harder to adjust one’s ear to.

And yet, in the end, the stories within The Marriage of Opposites grow familiar, their tellings and retellings handed down from generation to generation. And with their retelling, Hoffman’s original threads — of a forgotten past, her discovery and reclamation of a world that once existed, and her portrayal of characters loving one another, rebelling, and reconnecting — are woven together into an unforgettable tale. It’s a story well told, and well worth passing along.

K.H. Macomber is a writer and project manager who lives in Cambridge, MA, where she recently heard Alice Hoffman read from The Marriage of Opposites at the Harvard Book Store and answer questions about her writing process. K.H. is grateful to live in a place where the bookstores are independent and the speaker series robust.

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