in the early 1800s, on the island of St. Thomas, Rachel is born into an well respected family of the small community of Jews who have taken refuge on the island, fleeing the Inquisition in Europe. Though many years have passed since this persecution, the Jews of St. Thomas have stayed on the island, building a world uniquely their own. Rachel is a rebellious child and struggles with the obligations and rules placed upon her by her mother. Her only respite is with the family maid, Adele and her daughter, Rachel’s best friend, Jestine.
But Rachel’s life is not her own and she soon finds herself to be wed to a man much older than her, in hope’s of saving her father’s business. When both her father and husband die, Rachel finds herself in dire straits, for no one will accept a woman as a merchant, much less a widow. Her husband’s family sends a young man from Paris to run the business on St. Thomas. Her husband’s much younger and handsome nephew, Frederick. For Rachel, this is a moment to own her own life as she and Frederick begin a passionate and forbidden love affair. An affair that she must keep hidden from her family and her faith. But nothing stays hidden on this small island for long.
The story of Rachel and Frederick is one of passion and pain. Denounced by their faith and their families, still they strive to build a world of their own. But it is not only them that suffer for their love, but their children as well. Bullied and ostracized, they are a family of Pariahs. Yet, their business forces the very people who would look down upon them, and bar them from their place of worship, to come to them in times of need.
The Marriage of Opposites is not only the tale of Rachel and Frederick but of Jestine as well and the pain and betrayal her love has given her. Of Adele and and the love she could never call hers and of Rachel’s mother, whose suffering was carried daily and yet hidden from the rest of the world.
It is also the tale of Rachel’s rebellious son. The one who took after her. The one who fought her at every turn. The one who became the artist, Camille Pissarro: the Father of Impressionism.
I first read Alice Hoffman’s writing in the novel called The Dovekeepers. It was a novel so brilliantly written with characters so real that I thought surely, this is her greatest work and the can be no others to compare it to. I was wrong. The Marriage of Opposites is a novel of scope and breath that for a time it will do what a good book should do. It will transport you from where you are to an island in the Caribbean in the 1800s. To the streets of Paris in the winter. To the danger and the heartache that is forbidden love. To the joy of that same love.
You will not read Alice Hoffman’s The Marriage of Opposites. You will live it.
A very good read.