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BOOK REVIEW:The Marriage of Opposites

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BOOK REVIEW - The Marriage of Opposites

by Diane McCurdy

The title doesn’t seem to fit. It gives the reader the wrong impression and doesn’t reflect the profundity of the narrative. The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman is a huge, sprawling family saga thematically covering so much more than connubial relationships. The author defends her title choice indicating that when she baptized her book she was thinking in an alchemical sense, that is, creating and combining substances: man and wife, mothers and children, sophisticated cultures and more primitive ones. Even though this novel was on the prestigious New York Times Bestseller List, it seems it would have sold an even greater number of copies with a more exotic designate because the writing is a mostly poetic profusion, a virtual riot of colors and sounds.

The narrative is set on the island Charlotte Amelie, St. Thomas in the 1800’s. At the time it was a Danish possession now it is a U.S. territory, the Virgin Islands. Rachel is a feisty, intelligent young girl from a traditional Sephardic family. In order to save her father’s business she enters into a loveless marriage with a kind widower who already had three children. She bears him four more. When her husband dies, his nephew is dispatched from France to settle his uncle’s affairs and for the first time Rachel falls madly, passionately in love. Strict Judaism forbids their liaison as it is considered incestuous. Rachel struggles with her rabbi and the disdain of the community. Even so she has four more children. She is a mother to eleven! Everyone is very fecund and one wonders what options were available before condoms and the pill. The third child from this last union is Camille and we follow him through his school days, his dislike of business, his vagabond wanderings until he ends up in Paris and becomes the great impressionist painter, Camille Passarro who is associated with Cezanne, Monet, Degas, and Renoir. This is the apex of the plot.

Hoffman’s writing is luscious. She captures atmosphere from the wine-tangled tropical island to the bright lights of Paris, from the relentless heat of the equator to the stinging snowfalls of France. Sea turtles by moonlight, explosions of blood red flowers, hermits with magical herbs, all this is depicted with a dash of magical realism’s whimsy. What would a better title have been? Maybe just Rachel or Rachel of Many Loves or the Island of Destiny. There are so very many subplots that sometimes they make this novel seem over-written and overwrought but ultimately it is always fascinating.