The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

A forbidden love story set on the tropical island of St. Thomas about the extraordinary woman who gave birth to painter Camille Pissarro—the Father of Impressionism.

Growing up on idyllic St. Thomas in the early 1800s, Rachel dreams of life in faraway Paris. Rachel’s mother, a pillar of their small refugee community of Jews who escaped the Inquisition, has never forgiven her daughter for being a difficult girl who refuses to live by the rules. Growing up, Rachel’s salvation is their maid Adelle’s belief in her strengths, and her deep, life-long friendship with Jestine, Adelle’s daughter. But Rachel’s life is not her own. She is married off to a widower with three children to save her father’s business. When her husband dies suddenly and his handsome, much younger nephew, Frédérick, arrives from France to settle the estate, Rachel seizes her own life story, beginning a defiant, passionate love affair that sparks a scandal that affects all of her family, including her favorite son, who will become one of the greatest artists of France.


When I read the synopsis, I thought that this was going to be a simple love story. You know the one - boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, enter some sort of obstacle, but in the end, love conquers all. This novel is anything but a simple love story. It has many moving parts and explores many different facets of love. Yes, there is a passionate love story, but this novel also speaks to the love between a father and daughter, the love between a mother and daughter, the love between friends, the love of a mother for her son, the love between unequals, the love one feels towards their community, forbidden love, love versus companionship, and love for oneself. 

The story centers around the main character, Rachel, and chronicles much of her life from her early teens through her latter years. I found Rachel to be an incredibly complex character. She was defiant and strong-willed, yet at times obedient, but only to certain people. She refused to back down when her love affair caused a scandal, yet she refused to acknowledge her son's relationship when he went against her wishes. Like so many other great women, Rachel is a well of contradiction. Her life story, which is based on fact, is incredibly fascinating and compelling.

Although Rachel's story is the central story, there are several other "love" stories happening in and around her story that intersect with hers at different times throughout the novel. Alice Hoffman does an amazing job weaving together these various love stories, and even manages to throw in a surprise or two. She brings the cultures of St. Thomas and London alive beautifully and vividly, and this narrative is artfully written. This might be my favorite novel by Hoffman yet. Well worth the read.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book that takes places on an island

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