Seaside Book Club – May 2021

by Deborah Rogers –

We started our May meeting with a little slide show; making the most of our online capabilities! For a book that is as colourful and evocative as Alice Hoffman’s The Marriage of Opposites, it was an extra gift to be able to look at the paintings of Camille Pissarro whose life story inspired the novel.

Most of the book is set on the Carribean island of St Thomas, with several sections taking place in Paris; just one of the many contrasts presented through the story of Pissarro and his family. It opens in 1807, introducing the 12-year-old Rachel Pomié. She’s Jewish, part of a community that has settled on the Danish protectorate of St Thomas, fleeing anti-semitic pogroms in Europe. Paris looms large in her childhood as a place she longs to escape to. Rachel Pomié eventually becomes Rachel Pomié Petit Pizzarro after two marriages, and is mother to 10 children, including Jacob Camille.

The known facts of Rachel and Camille’s lives are woven into an incredibly dense fictionalized narrative by Hoffman. Her writing is so beautiful as she locates us on that sweltering hot island and some of the strongest feedback at our meeting was about the language and imagery of the book. Although the subject is Pissarro, the so-called “father of Impressionism,” it’s really Rachel’s story that grips the reader. Hoffman creates such a strong character, showing how a truculent teenager is forced to quickly grow up and assume the role of mother on her marriage to a widowed father of three. We witness her surrender to a passionate love later in her life, and then we see her change as her children age and Camille in particular tries to choose a life that is different than the one she imagined for him.

The restrictive Jewish community shapes the story, but so too does the culture of the island, with it’s spirits and magic. At our meeting we discussed Rachel’s character evolution, and how credible the change was. We talked at length about the roles that mothers and sisters play in the book. We also marvelled at the depth of research that Hoffman must have undertaken. The Marriage of Opposites is a complex book filled with complex characters and relationships. It was a rewarding read for those who perservered. Those who didn’t suggested a firmer hand from the editor might have helped!

Next month’s Book Club takes place on Tuesday, June 15 at 6:30 p.m. We’ll be discussing Dear Evelyn by Kathy Page, and are very excited to be hosting Kathy for a Q&A too! Make sure you’re signed up to receive all the details:

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