Book Review: The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

In her new book, The Marriage of Opposites; Alice Hoffman gives voice to one of the most obscure characters in the history. The book narrates the fictional childhood and life of Rachel Pissarro – the mother of Camille Pissarro, the founding member of the Impressionists. Fiercely independent and headstrong, Rachel Pissarro is the girl who knows what she wants and is willing to burn herself for her desires. Living among the conservative society of Jews in St. Thomas in 1800s, she is much ahead of her times and constantly rebels against the diktats of her mother and society.

A rebel by nature, Rachel never accepts the fate of being a woman, always speaks her mind, harbors an opinion on everything and questions the rules that stop her from being happy. Defying the world that expects her to repress her dreams and desires and forsake her love, she refuses to be delirious after her husband’s death and falls in love with the nephew of her late husband. Dubbed as a foul sorceress, evil witch who preys upon younger men, enchants them with magic, Rachel is denounced by the congregation, punished by her own people for following her own will and carving her own fate outside the norms dictated by the society.

Constantly questioning the ‘rules, and law, and morals that were twisted into whatever people wished them to be’, Rachel ‘was, the woman who knew what she wanted and what she must have.’

Struggling between social restraints and love, exhausting everyone; Rachel knows that she would always be an outcast, ‘the woman who was a sinner…could turn men into pillars of salt, enchant them to do my bidding, make them beg to come into my bed.’ In The Marriage of Opposites, Hoffman sympathetically narrates the tale of a woman who has been erased from the history; however, the sympathy is evoked not only for Rachel but also for women like her mother and Madame Halevy who though act as the custodians of social norms and morality, but are equally the victims of the same social norms and morals.

Hoffman exquisitely conjures the idyllic and lush world of St. Thomas where superstitions, curses, potions, herbs, magic forms the fabric of everyday life. ‘Here every color was vibrant, a completely different palette than in Paris. The pale blue sky that had burned white with heat only hours ago, when he’d stepped onto the wharf, was now washed with pink and gold.’ Told in Hoffman’s lyrical tone and style, the stories of werewolves, of a woman who lived with turtles, of ‘a boy too ugly to be seen is transformed by his own wits and by love’ assumes the characteristics of magic and demonstrates the nature of life on the island that dons the form of magic itself.

The second part of the book moves a bit away from Rachel to the life of Camille Pissarro, however, Rachel remains a haunting presence in his life, guiding his actions. A difficult child who took three days to come into this world, Camille is of the same temperament as of his mother. A rebel like his mother, he also defies the rules and his mother’s diktats and flees away time and again to follow his dreams, ‘If I had not been born a rebel, if the treatment of my parents hadn’t turned me into a radical, then I had been made one of the injustices I saw on our island. From the very start I wondered about the meaning of freedom.’ Wanting more than what he could have, dreaming of another country and another life, he turns out to be exactly like his mother in his fierceness and in his passions and desires. The author magnificently portrays the birth of the artist and his vision, ‘He painted everything he saw before him in the woods, but it all transformed in the way he envisioned it, in a dream, in a mist, in grays and purples and blues, realer to him than the world around him.

Though Hoffman beautifully narrates the story of Camille Pissarro right from his childhood to his struggle for control with his mother to his life in Paris, the book is primarily the story of a woman who dares to dream of a faraway land, of love and challenges the entire world to fulfil her desires and takes what she wants. A story of a woman who with her sheer willpower and resolve outlasts the society that waits for her to stumble and fall.

Although the author narrates the major historical events of the time, they always remain in the background and Hoffman focuses on the captivating story of a woman who dares to defy and win against all odds, who lives her life on her own terms, in times when women had no rights over their bodies and destinies.

Links: Amazon | Flipkart | Goodreads

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