The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

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There’s always something very exotic-seeming about the Caribbean, and this book, based partly on a true story, focuses on the fascinating and little-known subject of the Sephardi Jewish community of the Danish West Indies, now the US Virgin Islands, through the lives of the family of the artist Camille Pissarro … originally Jacob Pizzarro.

Just to wander off the point, I’d always assumed that Judah Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State, was born in the British West Indies, as he held British citizenship. However, as I now know, he was actually born in the Danish West Indies, but at a time when they were under British occupation due to issues arising from the Napoleonic Wars. It seems that up to half, maybe even more, of the European settlers in the West Indies were, as Benjamin was, Sephardi Jewish, and amongst them were the family of Pissarro’s mother Rachel, the main character in this book.

Rachel’s second marriage, to Pissarro’s father, Frederic, was controversial – it’s not entirely clear why but it seems likely that, as shown in this book, it was because he was her first husband’s nephew, and this particular community didn’t approve of marriage to a relative – and, for a time, the Pizzarros were shunned by their neighbours. It was that story and the character of Rachel, who rejected the norms of her society, which attracted Alice Hoffman’s attention, but she’s fleshed it out and made a glorious novel. Much of it is purely fictional, involving servants and secret illegitimate children and a whole web of complex relationships, but all of that works very well alongside the story of the Pizzarros..

The characters, both historical and fictional, are very well-drawn, but perhaps the real star of the book is the island of St Thomas itself. The last few chapters are set in Paris, but most of the novel is set in early to mid-nineteenth century St Thomas, and the descriptions of the island, with its lush scenery and wildlife and mixed population of different racial, religious and linguistic groups, its stories and its symbolism, draw you in and fascinate you. This isn’t an epic, but it’s a very well-written book, with an unusual setting, and I would highly recommend it.

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

  1. Chris Deeley

    I’m trying to leave a comment relating to another book (the one about Pissaro’s mother). The migrations of the Sephardi Jews is an interesting topic in itself. They were in Iberia in Roman times and traded throughout the Mediterranean. After their expulsion from Spain and Portugal both empires declined, while the Dutch prospered – as did New Amsterdam and later the British and the USA. They were great “endogamists” but sometimes agnostic – as was the American judge Benjamin Nathan Cardozo.

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