The prolific Alice Hoffman’s new novel, “The Marriage of Opposites,” is a fierce, sorrowful tale of the conflict between personal desire and social constraints that echoes through three generations on the island of St. Thomas in the first half of the 19th century. Like her most recent novels, this story is grounded in historical events and assiduous research, but Hoffman goes a step beyond “The Dovekeepers” (2011) and “The Museum of Extraordinary Things” (2014) by taking real-life figures as her protagonists. Staying close to the known facts about the artist Camille Pissarro and his parents, she forcefully imagines their interior lives and surrounds them with a full-bodied supporting cast of characters.
Pissarro doesn’t make his entrance until the halfway point, when his protracted birth nearly kills his mother. But we know at this point that so formidable a woman as Rachel Pomié Petit Pizzarro can’t possibly succumb to a mundane death in childbirth. We meet her at age 12 in 1807, and the very first sentence of her narration informs us: “I rarely did as I was told.” The only child of a loveless marriage between French-speaking refugees, Rachel chafes against the clannishness of St. Thomas’s Jewish community. She scorns her disapproving mother’s notions of propriety and befriends the daughter of her family’s African cook. She imbibes folk culture, including her favorite story about a mysterious turtle-girl as restless in the world of humans as Rachel is in St. Thomas. She dreams of escaping to Paris, “the place where everything beautiful began and ended.”
Hoffman’s trademark conjuring of folklore and fairy tales serves as a plausible plot driver here: Rachel expects that when she gets to France, the fantastic stories she has collected will be her passport into the glittering world she sees in Paris fashion magazines. But the author’s reliably lyrical descriptions of the natural world, with magic always shimmering just beneath its surface, sometimes seem rote; they are less interesting than the wonderfully complicated web of secrets, lies and realizations that entangle Rachel but ultimately set free her son.
By the time 11-year-old Jacobo Camille Pizzarro takes over as narrator in 1841, Rachel has outlived her first husband and scandalized the Jewish community by marrying his much younger nephew. It’s almost a decade before the congregation recognizes their marriage and their four children, and Rachel refuses to accompany her second husband to synagogue. “I did not expect God’s forgiveness,” she says, “for I had done as I pleased.” Yet she expects Jacobo, a dreamy boy who lives to paint, to buckle down and work in the family store.
Their contending voices alternate in the novel’s second half, when Hoffman’s propulsive drama of a woman defying convention deepens to include a rueful assessment of the ways in which we resemble our adversaries. Rachel comes to feel a grudging sympathy for her censorious mother as Jacobo, now calling himself Camille, returns from school in Paris even more committed to his art and less interested in shop-keeping. She winces to hear her angry son railing against her in words she could well have used for her own mother: “She wants everything just so. Everyone must follow the rules, including me.”
The other main strand of action grows from a tragic relationship between Aaron, an orphan whom Rachel’s parents adopt, and Jestine, the daughter of their cook. When Aaron comes of age, he lacks the courage to marry a woman of African descent and is sent to Paris to avoid scandal. A tender encounter many years later poignantly counterpoints Rachel’s still-thorny relations with her son, and a final revelation provides Hoffman’s lavishly stuffed plot with a bravura climactic twist — facilitated by a dead woman, no less.
That revelation depends on a very dicey bit of chronology, one of several probabilities that may irritate attentive readers. But Hoffman’s storytelling remains as compelling as ever in “The Marriage of Opposites.”
Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”
By Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster. 369 pp. $27.99