The Marriage of Opposites,’ by Alice Hoffman
By HILLARY KELLY
For a period of her young life, Virginia Woolf wrote while standing at an elevated desk poised near her sister Vanessa’s easel. The writing table’s curious height enabled Virginia to peer at the world from the same viewpoint as her artist sister, to witness all at once the world itself, the world transcribed in ink and the world brushed onto a canvas. Later, when Woolf created the character of the painter Lily Briscoe in “To the Lighthouse,” she knew the mix of delicacy and passion that collide to create a great work, and she was schooled in the fine craft of transforming daubs of paint into strings of words.
“The Marriage of Opposites” — which is based on the life of the renowned Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro and the story of his parents’ unlikely romance and marriage — is deeply concerned with the development of an artist and his work, and the familial experiences that shape an artist’s vision. In that particular way, it’s not unlike “To the Lighthouse.” But although Alice Hoffman sketches an intriguing protagonist, her predilection for her own dreamy, moody landscape design overwhelms the narrative, as if to distract us from its stretched, disintegrating form. “The Marriage of Opposites” is a riot of color and fever, entirely obsessed with the passion of an artist but devoid of the sense of delicacy.
Born at the turn of the 19th century on the island of St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies — a place of “fragrant and heavy” air, and heat so extreme it causes French ladies to faint “moments after disembarking” — Pissarro’s mother, Rachel Pomié, lives in a palm-shaded, vine-tangled, wicked fairy tale. She is the only living child of a kindly shipping merchant who allows her free rein in his map-filled library, and a harsh, unforgiving mother whose dissatisfaction continually reaches new heights. Young Rachel is a type — the neglected child who immerses herself in literature to avoid her sad home life — but a compelling one.
As Rachel yearns to leave behind island life and cross the sea to Paris, her dreams of long boulevards and shady jardins evaporate when her father informs her of her engagement to Isaac Petit, a fellow Jewish merchant. Rachel inherits Isaac’s three young children in the marriage, but Isaac dies six years later. Shortly thereafter, despite the salty glares of townspeople and condemnation from the Jewish community, Rachel beds, falls for and marries Isaac’s nephew Frédéric, who has been sent from Paris to settle his uncle’s affairs. As Rachel not so slyly notes, after the marriage, “We didn’t leave our chamber for 12 hours.” This is decidedly not a marriage of convenience, and Hoffman’s writing is most adroit as she traces the psychological upheaval that accompanies morally and religiously forbidden love.
Camille is the third child of this against-all-odds union, and much of the second half of the novel concerns his development from fidgety schoolboy to daring, misunderstood en plein air master. But at precisely the halfway mark, when the novel might have turned into a vibrant portrait of an artist as a young man, it careens into a tirade of maternal anger. Rachel, a woman so unconventional she married her deceased husband’s nephew and so daring she petitioned the Grand Rabbi of Denmark to ask his blessing for the marriage, transforms without cause into a caricature of the disappointed parent, displeased that her child has chosen a creative rather than practical career. She mocks his aspirations, sneers at his work and even whips out the eternally guilt-inducing “Did you know it took three days for you to be born?”
This absurd, unfounded anger at Camille consumes Rachel’s life — and in turn the rest of the novel. It’s a bizarre and wholly unbelievable alteration; Rachel’s feelings may stem from her own thwarted ambitions, but they’re never properly explored by either her or Hoffman. Every opportunity for complexity is discarded in favor of flat and baseless bitterness. Frédéric and Rachel’s other children melt away. A fascinating side story of a mixed-race child’s abduction by her white father is neglected. The complications of mothering a genius are fertile ground, yet Hoffman tills the same spot over and over until it yields only shriveled and wizened crops.
Where is Camille — the man whom Cézanne called a father and Gauguin considered a master — in all of this? What did he see when he peered over his easel onto the dusty roads of St. Thomas and then the verdant allées of rural France? It’s hard to say. “The Marriage of Opposites” is so intoxicated by its protagonist’s bitter scent that it fails to notice the artistic genius blooming among its undergrowth.
THE MARRIAGE OF OPPOSITES
By Alice Hoffman
369 pp. Simon & Schuster. $27.99.