CultureWatch Review, The Marriage of Opposites: Magic Realism Imbuing Emotion and Presentiments With An Exotic Setting
Camille Pissarro, Two Women Chatting by the Sea, St. Thomas, 1856. oil on canvas. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon; National Gallery of Art
The Marriage of Opposites
By Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster e-book
Reviewed by Joan L. Cannon
'Magic Realism' is a recent arrival (in terms of literary history) in readers' lexicons. For me, it tends to suggest a chore. Not really my thing, despite the stellar reputations of authors like Marquez. Alice Hoffman's version was a happy surprise.
Beginning early in the 19th Century on the island of St. Thomas, the story is centered around Rachel Pizzaro. She is a member of a segregated European community of mostly French Jews in a time when women were barely accorded the status of citizens, both in Jewry and in European law. Encouraged by her friendship with a mixed blood girl of the servant class called Jestine, Rachel grows into a formidable woman.
Even in childhood she reveals a determination to follow her own wishes that leads to recurring problems for the rest of her life, and that carries over to the lives of children who follow her. She is not only willing, but committed to love regardless of the sacrifices that she might be called upon to make.
The histories of St. Thomas, both political and natural, are profound and inescapable influences on the people who live with them. Hoffman's rich language combined with the eye of a visual as well as a verbal artist make for a uniquely vivid read. Color, temperature, atmosphere cling to a reader like a special scent long after the last page is turned. The magic parts that imbue emotions and presentiments with color as well enhance the exotic setting.
When an individualist like Rachel — intelligent and passionate — falls in love, she is not to be denied. Rachel pursues her heart's desire without regard for the consequences. Against formidable odds, she eventually marries the love of her life, and lives long enough to comprehend the opposite side herself when her own son rebels over his parents' objections.
In the background of all the Caribbean scenes is a ghost image of Paris as the place where the characters think their lives can come full circle and fulfill their greatest dreams. The colors of the subtropics are paled and chilled by the continental climate and culture of Europe, but lose nothing in brilliance in Hoffman’s descriptions.
A clear irony is fully developed when Rachel finds herself reliving her own parents' insistence on controlling the future of her most loved child. Like her parents before her, she is defeated by the drive of youth and the demands of talent when her beloved son turns into a painter. In time, the family’s surname is re-spelled as French — the Zs replaced with Ss. He becomes one of the fathers of Impressionism as Camille Pissaro. How I wish that some of his work from St. Thomas were available to compare with the familiar serene and atmospheric landscapes painted in France.
I have a small objection to the title of the book because it seems inaccurate in light of the story line. A little research reveals that 'opposites' is a term used by alchemists. In that context, in a story full of the superstitions and traditions of colliding cultures, the alchemical notion that all things must contain their opposites for successful potions then makes sense.
For a reading experience that is fuller than the average, with resonances well beyond the type on the page, A Marriage of Opposites provides nuanced, layered, sensual images of a time and of people completely out of ordinary 21st Century experience. A real delight.
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