Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The marriage of opposites, by Alice Hoffman

The writing in Hoffman’s novel actually made me want to visit the Caribbean for the first time in my life, but a quick search on Google of St. Thomas dissuaded me.  Not surprisingly, things have changed somewhat since the early 1800s.  The Impressionist artist Camille Pissaro (nee Pizzaro) was born there to parents of Portuguese-Jewish descent and of French nationality – St. Thomas was at that time held by Denmark. Camille (known by his first name, Jacobo, on St. Thomas) was the last of his mother Rachel ’s children – she had older stepchildren and her own children with her first husband (an arranged marriage), and several more with her second, a love match whose forbidden nature drives much of the action in this historical novel.  For the main character in the book is really Rachel, a brilliant, dreamy, willful child indulged and educated by her father and resented by her mother.  She grows up with her closest friend Jestine, daughter of her mother’s African maid, Adelle.  Jestine is of mixed race, her father unknown.  Rachel dreams of Paris, which she visits through her father’s books, and her son Camille will inherit both her dissatisfaction with convention and her longing to leave the island for Europe.  There are several subplots, some real, some imagined, woven together in this small close-knit community, but the real joy is in the writing.  Hoffman’s descriptions of the differing beauties of the tropical island and the ancient city of Paris are painterly as befits the subject of the book.  Unexpectedly lovely.  365 pp.

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