Alice Hoffman true believers will thrill to “The Marriage of Opposites,” which contains all her familiar tropes: powerful, passionate women who stand up to oppressive circumstances; supportive sisters and female friends; lush natural worlds; spells, magic, and enchantment; true love; and a densely woven tapestry of prose, threaded with recurring images and symbols.
Hoffman has elaborated these tropes across the trajectory of an impressive career (this is her 34th novel). Her fiction has long balanced between real and mythical. “At Risk” (1988) was one of the first novels about AIDS, and “Illumination Night” (1987) and “Turtle Moon” (1992) are triumphs of American magical realism. She soon added history to the mix, taking her patented brand of women back in time and across generations. Most recently, her fiction has addressed the Jewish historical experience: Masada in “The Dovekeepers” and the fires at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and Coney Island’s Dreamland in the wonderful “The Museum of Extraordinary Things.”
In “The Marriage of Opposites,” Hoffman turns to actual historical figures, namely Rachel Pomie Petit Pizzarro and her son, the Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro. Whether or not Rachel actually resembled a Hoffman character, Hoffman has made her one. Born into the rigidly respectable early-19th-century Jewish community of St. Thomas, Rachel, the daughter of a harshly judgmental mother, chafes at her limitations, learns to read in her sympathetic father’s library, collects magical local stories, feels the presence of ghosts, and yearns for Paris. From the book’s first pages to its last, her boon companion is Jestine, daughter of her family’s black maid and an unknown father (whose identity will be evident to alert readers hundreds of pages before its revelation).
Plot is one challenge of writing fiction about real people, and the stories of Rachel and Camille unfold more as chronicle than narrative. Rachel’s parents marry her off to an older widower with three children; she has three more children, and her husband dies. She then falls scandalously in love with her husband’s nephew, with wshom she has a disputed marriage and more children, including Camille, before battling her way back to respectability. Over the course of these events, Rachel evolves from rebel to oppressor, as the novel’s conflicts and relationships repeat themselves across new generations.
In an afterword, Hoffman notes that while “Rachel Pizzarro’s life in my imagined story mirrors the known facts about her as closely as possible . . . The stories of the Pizzarros’ West Indian employees, neighbors, and friends are invented.” Here, alas, “The Marriage of Opposites” falters. The most vivid characters Hoffman invents are four black women: Jestine; her mother, Adelle; her daughter, Lydia; and Rosalie, the maid Rachel inherits from her first husband’s first wife. While Rachel herself is prickly to the point of unpleasant, Jestine, Adelle, Lydia and Rosalie are paragons: They cook the most delicious meals, sew the most beautiful dresses, surround Rachel with material and emotional support, and love faithfully (if often tragically).
Most importantly, they are impeccable mothers — of their own children and, especially, of the white children they care for by necessity and choice. Where the novel’s white mothers — Rachel, her mother, her mother’s best friend, her adopted brother’s wife — make their children suffer in the name of their own selfish conflicts between love and scruples, black women step in as their idealized substitutes. Although Hoffman’s white characters explicitly (and sometimes tendentiously) stand up for equality and the rights of women, slaves, and the working class, these tired stereotypes of black women (see: “Gone with the Wind,” “The Help,” et al) do little justice to those principles.
“The Marriage of Opposites” can feel stylistically tired as well. Hoffman beautifully evokes the tropical lushness of St. Thomas and the emergence of Camille’s artistic career. Often, however, her incantatory reiterations seem forced. Characters and places reappear (everyone keeps stumbling upon a talismanic elderly herb man and his hidden cabin), and patterns (tragic love stories, illegitimate children, specious adoptions) and images (birds, ghosts, “ghosts turned into birds,” witches, donkeys, turtles, rain, lavender sachets, physical and emotional fevers, and dreams, so many dreams) recur to the point of banality.
Hoffman occupies an important place in contemporary American letters. As publishing has gravitated toward the young adult, celebrity authors, and genre blockbusters, she has almost single-handedly maintained the viability of midlist literary fiction. It is a disappointment, then, when she is not at her best, but her record suggests her best will soon return.
The Marriage of Opposites
By Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster,
384 pp., $27.99
Rebecca Steinitz is the author of “Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.