“The Marriage of Opposites” by Alice Hoffman (Simon & Schuster, 384 pages, $27.99)
Midway through Alice Hoffman’s latest novel, the mother of the great Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro takes her 2-week-old son into the forest to find a medicine man she hopes can cure him of the malady that has kept him from eating or sleeping since birth.
The herbalist, who lives in a shack the budding artist will one day use as a makeshift studio, studies the infant, then renders his diagnosis. There’s nothing the matter with him, he says. “He just has other things on his mind. … He sees what you can’t see.”
A 2-week-old? Unlikely. But realism is beside the point in “The Marriage of Opposites,” Hoffman’s vivid and absorbing account of the emotionally turbulent life of the mother of one of the 19th century’s greatest painters.
Don’t expect a straightforward biography. Hoffman mixes fact and fiction to produce a richly imagined tapestry shot through with her signature blend of folklore, fairy dust and romantic passion.
Rachel Pomie Petit Pizzarro – her son changed his last name after settling in France – was born in 1795 into a prosperous Jewish family on St. Thomas, then a Danish colony, now part of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
She died at age 94 in Paris after raising 11 children from two marriages: the first, an arranged match to a much older man who widowed her at 29, and the second, a love affair for the ages that scandalized the Jewish community because Frederic Pizzarro – Camille’s father – was a nephew by marriage and seven years younger than she was.
The novel, set in St. Thomas and Paris, explores the complicated relationships on the island among its European settlers and the descendants of African slaves. It’s their secrets and lies that drive the plot forward, as well as the eternal mystery of how such a monumental talent as Pissarro’s is formed.
The novel suggests that the extraordinary light on St. Thomas, its lush landscape, blue-green sea and hardworking residents, all played a part in the development of his groundbreaking style and eventual reputation as the father of impressionism, an artist with a strong sympathy for the working man.
By bringing to life the little-known story of Pissarro’s mother and depicting her as a force of nature in her own right, Hoffman also suggests that this painter now beloved by tens of millions of art lovers around the world has his mom to thank, at least in part, for his shimmering talent.