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The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

The Marriage of Opposites

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"The daughter of a merchant, Rachel is married off as a teenager to a local widower, whose business will help her father's, and finds herself suddenly running a household and stepmother to three children.

"When her husband dies unexpectedly, his 22-year-old nephew, Frédérick, arrives from France to settle the estate, only to fall passionately in love with both Rachel and the glorious island of her birth. Their love sparks a scandal in the little town - one that has reverberations halfway across the globe. One of the children of this union is Jacobo Camille Pissarro who, inspired by his mother's iron will and faith in her own heart, will grow up to become one of the founders of Impressionism."

Everyone in the group enjoyed this book, and it provoked a wide ranging discussion. Unlike other books by Alice Hoffman, this is a novel based on records, covering the true life and marriages of Rachel Pomie.

The setting of the island of St Thomas in the Caribbean makes for rich and colourful visual descriptions, as well as insights into a range of cultural issues. These include island life in general, the closed communities of religious sects and the harsh divisions within them, and the experiences of émigrés who fled from persecution. We also learned about contemporary attitudes towards slaves and mixed race relationships.

The women in this novel, real and fictitious alike, are strong characters. Rachel is passionate and principled, and holds exceptional attitudes and power for a woman living in the 19th century. The relationships between women, in particular with their domestic slaves, are well-defined and interesting, and the interactions between Rachel and her children and step-children are lovely.

The Marriage of Opposites is a slow read, but enjoyable once you get used to the pace. It is enlivened by being written from various points of view.