In 1830 on the island of St Thomas – now part of the US Virgin Islands, but then part of the Danish West Indies – Rachel Pomié Petit Pizzarro gave birth to her seventh child, a baby who “had a mind of his own and didn’t care how much pain he caused me”. She named him Jacob Abraham Camille Pizzarro and “loved him best, precisely because of our struggle, a secret I kept from all the others”. Four decades later, Rachel’s son altered the spelling of his name and became one of the most important figures in 20th-century impressionism, Camille Pissarro.
Alice Hoffman’s fictionalised biography of Rachel Pizzarro’s life is an evocative, sensitive and historically rich portrayal of a woman living ahead of her time. Rachel “rarely did as I was told… I certainly didn’t follow any rules. But I was a girl who knew what I wanted.” To her mother, and to the small close-knit Jewish community around her, she is a social aberration, and when she takes as her lover – and subsequently her husband – Frederic Pizzarro, the cousin of her deceased first husband, she also becomes a social outcast.
Throughout the novel, Hoffman strikes a sympathetic balance between Rachel’s uncompromising nature and her struggle against patriarchal restrictions: she is headstrong and determined, but Hoffman laces her character with both vulnerability and stoicism, which makes an intoxicating heroine. Similarly, Rachel’s best friend, Jestine, the beautiful mixed-race daughter of the family’s cook, is a dignified survivor of deeply traumatic injustices.
As with many of Hoffman’s 25 novels, the story is told against a rich backdrop of myths and fairytales. It’s as much an exploration of storytelling – of the stories we tell ourselves to justify our actions, and those others tell about us in order to justify their behaviour – as it is a biography of the mother of a great artist. Hoffman’s writing throughout is both sensuous and visceral, whether describing the love between Rachel and Frederic or the landscape of St Thomas.
Exploring forbidden love and friendship, and the ways in which patterns of behaviour are repeated down the generations, this is a satisfying novel about family bonds, and the endeavours of one woman to stretch her wings beyond the constraints of gender, time and geography.
The Marriage of Opposites is published by Scribner (£7.99).
Source: The Guardian