Novels about art are one of my favorite sub-genres of historical fiction. Back in early May, I spotted Alice Hoffman's The Marriage of Opposites at the library and decided on a whim to check it out, as I vaguely remembered that A—it was about Pissaro and B—I'd been wanting to read it.
I came to Alice Hoffman's novels via her magical realism work; my favorite has long been The River King as it has her signature touch and it's set in a boarding school. (I think many readers have A Thing for books set in boarding schools.) Her historical fiction is not magical realism, but there is still something magic-esque about The Marriage of Opposites. Perhaps it is just the description of the setting, the island of St. Thomas, which feels magical to me (and I have now added it to the list of places I'd like to visit. Except, can I visit as it is described here, in the early 1800s? And not now when I imagine it's overcome with tourism?)
Despite my memory, this is a book that's only partly about Pissarro, who became one of the fathers of Impressionism (and was an early supporter of Van Gogh). Mostly it is about his mother, Rachel, and her life in St. Thomas and, at the end, in Paris, but we also see the story through Pisarro's eyes and his father's.
One thing that really hit me while I was reading this novel with this realization: I really love well-written historical fiction. Which is sort of a strange realization to make, I guess, as I've been reading it my whole life. But I've never acknowledged it clearly. I especially love historical fiction that bring women's lives into focus for me. I love being immersed in the past, learning about how people lived and vicariously experiencing a time period. I like long, expansive novels that explore a person's entire life. Not every author can do this well?some are too long (I'm thinking of Sharon Kay Penman, for example, whose book When Christ and His Saints Slept sounds like something I would love but I made it 100 or so pages in and we still hadn't gotten anywhere and I just couldn't... keep... going...) and some work too much with stereotypes, glazing over the personal details that bring the story to life. And I definitely don't really love romantic historical fiction (think bodice rippers), although of course love is a great part of any story. What I want in historical fiction is a sense of realness, and to learn something, and to be lost in the story.
So even though The Marriage of Opposites isn't magical realism, it really does still have a hint of magic to it. It was perfectly balanced between the lives of Rachel and Camille; I learned more about a time, a movement, and two places (I also learned that Cezanne, Degas, and Renior were antisemitic, which, gah, shouldn't change my opinion of their art but kind of does). But even better is the life that Hoffman creates for Rachel out of the barest facts of her life: a life-long friendship, a struggle with her mother, a resistance to expected women's roles; also her place in the small Jewish community where she was born, her relationship with the ghosts of women who came before her, her marriage to her second husband. Plus Camille's experiences in Paris, the mystery he pieces together, the way he sees the world as a source for his art.
Plus I loved these three ideas:
"Whoever knows you when you are young can look inside you and see the person you once were, and maybe still are at certain times."
"Then I understood that when someone begins to tell you her story, you are entwined together."
"Witches are made, not born."
All of which is to say: I loved The Marriage of Opposites and I'm grateful it was my companion during my bout with whooping cough.