The Marriage of Opposites, Alice Hofffman, Gloria Reuben, Narrator, Tina Benko, Narrator, Santino Fontana, narrator, Alice Hoffman, narrates the afterword.
This novel is about the history of the Pissarro family. It takes place on Charlotte, Amalie, St. Thomas, in the early 1800’s, when it was under Danish rule. Jews seeking refuge from oppression in Europe and Russia fled there for their safety from the pogroms in Russia and the Spanish Inquisition. The Pomie family left France and settled there. It is where Rachel Pomie, Camille Pissarro’s mother, began her colorful life.
As tale unwinds, the reader is given a glimpse into the unfortunate circumstances propelling the Jews from their homelands. Coupled with that information is the folklore and background of the island and the customs of the Jews. Both are rife with superstitions, rules and regulations, some of which seem so rigid as to defy sensibility and decency, some of which seem like island witchcraft. There is a more open interracial society there, but boundaries and class distinction prevail over all else.
The first half of the book is devoted to the life of the headstrong Rachel Pomie, from Creole heritage, a woman who was of European background, but who had never actually lived in Europe. The second half is devoted to Camille Pizzarro, her so, who changed the spelling of his name so as not to be confused with a Spanish Conquistador.
Rachel is married off as a young teen in order to try and salvage her family’s financial situation. She is basically sold. Her husband, the widower Isaac Petit, is more than twice her age and a father of three. During their marriage Rachel bears several more children of her own and is a dutiful wife. When he dies, her fortune reverts to his family, as was the custom regarding women, and she is left in dire circumstances.
Abraham Petit, the nephew of her husband is sent to the island to manage the finances and sell the assets with little regard given for the future of the remaining family members. Fate intervenes, however, and although he, known as Frederic, is almost a decade younger and is forbidden to marry her due to the rules of incest, finds himself smitten by Rachel and they fall madly in love with each other. They remain completely loyal and devoted to each other for the rest of their lives. They enter into a forbidden relationship and later a marriage which is sanctioned, reversed, and then sanctioned again, years later. They defied the rules and their behavior brought shame to the family and unwanted repercussions to their children. Many children are born to them, the most famous and the one this book concerns itself with, is Jacobo Abraham Camille Pissarro.
The issue of race and religion is explored well. The hypocrisy is examined and becomes obvious. Class lines, color lines and religious lines are often crossed in the shadows, but not accepted in the open air. Heritage becomes blurred because of it, and some who are haughty are shamefully dishonest about their own heritage and behavior. Their family name and honor is upheld at all costs which makes a mockery of the term honor.
I was disappointed in the largely negative portrayal of Jewish behavior, with flawed characters and religious leaders, in contrast with the way the author portrayed others, like the housekeepers and their children, the ones she made up out of whole cloth. They seemed to do nothing improper, unless forced by circumstances beyond their control, and were model human beings. Most of the book, therefore, lies in the area of fiction which makes it somewhat confusing at times since it cannot, therefore, parallel their lives accurately except for the merest outline. None of the female characters that are major parts of the story are real. Adelle, Jestine, Rosalie and Lydia are made up out of whole cloth, although they really direct much of the narrative. Since all of their relationships are also false, the book, in my opinion, becomes less historic fiction and more of a novel that incorporates some famous names.
The most interesting part of the narrative, to me, was the folklore and history of the island and the Jews who lived on the Island of the Turtle. I would recommend that the reader do some research about the family to understand the story more fully and to be able to discern and separate the fact from the fiction. Rachel and Camille marched to the beat of their own drummers, and overall, it seemed to be a tale of love that defied rules and regulations, love that crossed barriers and altered landscapes. Yet those characters that rejected and defied the rules, continued to perpetuate those old ones and impose them, seemingly unfairly, on succeeding generations, blind to their own past defiance, unwilling to alter their ideology for their progeny.
It is a tale of cross cultures, of racial and religious boundaries that are broken under cover. The family dynamic was repetitious and I found the fictional part of the story took over so much that the historic facts faded into insignificance. It turned out that my favorite characters were not even real so that even though their stories were very interesting, they were meaningless with regard to history. If the characters Rachel grew up with were not real, then it made her whole background seem questionable to me, as well. I enjoyed the story for the story value, not the history presented.