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Micah Reader in November 2016 by Brenda Levenson
The world is divided in two: those whose reading tastes lean towards history, biography and politics, and those who prefer novels. But fictionalized history? For some of us the words are a paradox. We want facts, unadulterated by fantasy, and yet I confess having enjoyed Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman, published in 2015, as a pleasant interlude to more serious and demanding volumes. The book received mixed reviews from our readers. Could it be that I had been bewitched by the demons and supernatural creatures that creep up on some of the pages about lives lived in the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, while others resisted their nefarious influence?
The small Jewish community of St. Thomas is at the heart of the story. Its members are descendants of those who fled Spain as a result of the Inquisition in 1492, went first to Portugal, before settling in Bordeaux, France, with a minority ending up in some of the Caribbean islands. The focus is on Rachel who would become the mother of Camille Pissarro, one of the leaders of the French Impressionist movement along with Monet and Sisley. At the age of twenty, her parents marry her to Isaac, a widower nearly thirty years older than she and the father of eight children. Our readers commented on the fact that Hoffman could have depicted him as “an evil man” or worse, but she doesn’t, and if Rachel does not love him, she is a good wife to a husband she concedes to be “a considerate lover.” She becomes a true mother to her stepchildren, treating them with the same attention she dedicates to the three children that she and Isaac would have. But when Isaac dies suddenly at the age of 51, Rachel discovers that his business is on the verge of bankruptcy and that she is left with debts and pregnant again. Isaac’s large family who settled in France delegates his nephew Frederic to try and solve the situation with which Rachel and the children are now faced. He would prove up to the job and succeed in the task he has been handed.
When the two meet, Rachel is 29 years old and Frederic 22, but the difference in ages does not stop them from falling love. The Jewish community views their affair as scandalous and as a result they are ostracized. When Rachel and Frederic decide to legalize their union, the rabbi refuses to officiate on the basis that avuncular marriages are akin to incest, a ban that does not appear in the Torah but is observed among certain Jewish groups. The situation will be resolved eventually, some years down the line, and Camille Pissarro will be the couple’s third son and his mother’s favorite.
Our readers speculated that the community’s rigid adherence to rules may have been a result of its isolation. Our discussion veered on the close relationships that existed between the women and their maids. More intimate contacts between the husbands and their female domestics were fairly frequent. Slavery continued to exist to some minor degree, in spite of the fact that under the control of Denmark the institution had been abolished. However, the comparison with slavery in the American South ends here. The biblical image of Abraham who asked his “senior servant” to find a wife for his son Jacob, is more in tune with the way the domestic help was treated as members of the family. Hoffman touches upon the issue of segregation that divided the blacks from the whites around them, but the cruelty with which American plantation owners treated their slaves does not appear to have taken place in St. Thomas.
Hoffman’s vivid descriptions of the flowers’ vibrant colors, the deep blues of sea and sky, and the magnificent varieties of exotic birds “transport us to the lush” world of the island, and if she repeats herself at times, it is for us to better “see” the sensuous beauty with which she clearly is in love.
The book being about the mother of Pissarro, the art maven in our group treated us to much information about the importance of the Impressionist movement that she called “revolutionary, coming after centuries of minor changes in pictorial art from the time of the Renaissance to the late 19th century,” with a nod to the Romantic movement led by Eugène Delacroix. She laid out for us aspects of Pissarro’s work, his role as “mentor” to Cézanne, and details about the meaning of the word “Impressionism,” all of which enriched our discussion on a book many called “a beach read,” pleasurable but “bland.”