Review: ‘The Marriage of Opposites’ by Alice Hoffman

The Marriage of Opposites. Alice Hoffman. Simon & Schuster. 384 pages. $27.99.
The Marriage of Opposites. Alice Hoffman. Simon & Schuster. 384 pages. $27.99.

If you need an escape, let your mind drift to the island of St. Thomas. Immerse yourself in a fictional account of the life of the mother who helped give birth to an art movement.

Time-travel to Rachel Pizzarro’s early 1800s childhood in the island’s tight-knit Jewish community. Learn the history of St. Thomas Synagogue’s sand floor, which Jews forced into hiding used to muffle the sound of prayer.

The prolific Alice Hoffman’s latest work is rich with details that transport readers to a tropical paradise. The Marriage of Opposites invites comparisons to Gabriel García Márquez, but Hoffman follows her own star. The natural world is a focus of the book, alongside Rachel and her lifelong friend Jestine: They notice the pelican watching from a distance, the flowers blooming, the wind in the trees. They believe lavender bundles tucked into the suitcases of loved ones will draw travelers back home. They sleep on the beach when sea turtles come to lay their eggs.

The book shifts between first person and third person; the first-person passages read swiftly. Chapter headings noting place, date and character provide structure that make shifts in point of view less intrusive.

Although girls of the time are not educated, Rachel’s father gives her access to his library, and from an early age, she pines to see Paris. Rachel comes of age believing she is destined for something more than her apparent lot in life: marriage to a financially stable man. From what Rachel has seen, “marriage was hard labor, not a fate I looked forward to.”

Real-world problems of the era — trade difficulties, cholera and social pressures — underlie the conflicts in the book. Rachel resents a male relative who is summoned from Paris to run the family business. Her mother nixes the notion of Rachel’s leadership with a comment painfully reminiscent of the time: “You could never accept the fact that you were a woman and nothing more.”

Hoffman captures the early stages of an infatuation with glances, stirrings and imaginings that give rise to increasingly steamy descriptions as passion grows into a forbidden love that does not hew to religious dogma or social convention. By today’s standards, the community is unrealistically short on compassion for the couple. Rachel pays a price for love: ostracism. Her resentment colors the entire family’s life.

When her son, Jacobo Camille, is 10, Rachel asks him if he thinks God can hear his father’s prayers, which are said in the yard because he is not welcome at the synagogue. Camille replies: “I think he hears God.” “My mother looked at me hard, to see if I was making a joke. I wasn’t. I thought perhaps it was more important to listen than to be heard. I kept a vigil into the night listening to the moths at the window, the frogs in the puddles, the wind that came from across the ocean.”

The boy’s artistic talents compel him to go to Paris for education, but his radical views are shaped by the slavery and injustices at home. He grows into a young man who does not want to charge people for things they cannot afford. He prefers to give them away. But he does not decline his family’s money because it supports his art. He is, of course, Camille Pizzarro (typically spelled Pissarro), a pivotal figure in French Impressionism.

If, as author Kate Atkinson writes, “The purpose of Art is to convey the truth of a thing, not to be the truth itself,” Hoffman elevates what could have been little more than a getaway book to a work of art.

Martha Sheridan reviewed this book for The Dallas Morning News.

Meet the author

What: Alice Hoffman appears at the Women’s Day Luncheon for the Dave & Mary Alper Jewish Community Center’s 35th Annual Berrin Family Jewish Book Festival.

When: 9:30 a.m. Thursday.

Where: Coral Gables Country Club, 997 N. Greenway Dr., Coral Gables.

Cost: $60.

Information: or 305-271-9000, ext. 268.