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The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman
We repeat the mistakes of our parents
The Marriage of Opposites is a fictionalized story based on the known facts of the life of both Rachel Pizzaro and her son famed artist, Camille Pissaro. It's also a look inside the Jewish faith from a personal level.
From the title, I thought the primary story would be the love story between Rachel and Frederic Pizzaro. That once we got through with Rachel's business marriage the rest of the book would focus on them. Unfortunately, we get two chapters of it and then they kind of become background characters as their son, Camille, takes over as the lead character.
The story opens when Rachel is a young girl. She's best friends with the housekeeper's daughter, Jestine. She also has a close relationship with her father and a very bad relationship with her rigid mother. Rachel's biggest dream is to one day go to Paris and escape Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas.
When her father is having problems with his business he makes a marriage merger for his daughter and Issac Petit. Petit is a widower with three children. He tells her upfront he will never love her and his heart will always belong to his dead wife who died giving birth to their last child, a daughter. Rachel has no problem with this and falls in love with his three children. She has three children with him before he dies.
Before her marriage, Adelle, her family's housekeeper told her that she would have two husbands and the second husband would be her great love. The last person Rachel expects to find her great love is in the person of her late husband's young nephew, Frederic, who comes to handle his uncle's business affairs.
Frederic is seven years younger than Rachel, but worse than that he's her late husband's nephew and in the Jewish religion it's forbidden for a marriage to take place between them. The Jewish faith considers Rachel and Frederic's relationship incest even though they're not blood related.
Rachel, however, is very headstrong and she refuses to give up Frederic, who is the love of her life, and Frederic feels the same. They try appealing to the local Jewish reverend but he refuses to marry them and when they have a child out of wedlock they won't enter his name into the birth record in the synagogue. And those of their faith shun them. Eventually, however, they are finally able to marry.
That's when the story shifts focus to their son. Camille. He wants to do only one thing and that's to paint. You'd think Rachel would be his greatest champion and understand him, but she doesn't. She becomes as rigid and demanding that Camille conform and take his place in the family business as her mother had been to her years before. And being his mother's son, Camille refuses to give up his art.
When she finally stops fighting him she tells him he can pursue his dream, and she decides she will do the same as she convinces Frederic to move with her to Paris. Unfortunately, things don't go well once they get there. Frederic contracts a wasting disease and dies and Camille falls in love with a woman Rachel disapproves of.
Once again, Rachel does to Camille what was done to her and withholds her permission for Camille to marry the woman he loves, even when they have children out of wedlock. It's because she turns around and does to her son what was done to her and shows no understanding for what he's going through that Rachel who starts out as sympathetic becomes pretty unlikable by the end of the story.
There's a side story of Jestine falling in love with Rachel's cousin Aaron. When they want to marry they are refused because Jestine isn't Jewish. When Jestine has his child Lydia, Aaron who has married a rich Jewish girl steals Jestine's daughter from her and takes her away. It isn't until years later that Jestine will be reunited with her daughter.
Jestine and Aaron are probably the most tragic love story of the story. It turns out Aaron wasn't Jewish, either, so he could have married Jestine as he wanted instead of marrying a woman he didn't really love. Rachel's mother knew the truth and she was actually the one who came up with the plan to abduct Lydia from Jestine.
When the truth about Lydia's true parentage comes out [Aaron and his wife made the world think that Aaron's wife was really Lydia's mother] her husband stands by her, but his family turns against the couple. Because Henri chooses to stay with Lydia his family consider him dead and won't even acknowledge him if they pass him on the street. They also cut him off financially and turn him out of the business. See, Lydia wasn't born of a Jew so marriage to her is forbidden.
The way the Jewish faith operates in regards to the family and marriages is really fascinating. It makes me glad I'm not Jewish. The rigidness of the religion is amazing. They don't care if you're red with pink polka dots. If you're Jewish they'll support you marrying another Jew, but if you're not Jewish they'll shun you and act like you're dead to them. So from that standpoint the novel gives an interesting view of the religion through the various relationships highlighted in the novel.
Where I think the novel goes wrong is Rachel turning into this uber Jewish mother. It just isn't believable when she does to her son what was done to her. And ditto for Frederic. Neither has any empathy for him. If anyone should understand how the heart having a mind of its own it's those two who scandalized the Jewish community by refusing to deny their love for each other and fighting so they could be married.
I think the most hateful Rachel scene was near the end of the book when she learns her son has a daughter he names after both her and his girlfriend's mother and she declares the baby will be called by her name and she sneaks in to see the baby not wanting to see the baby's mother. Apparently, since the daughter is her name sake she wants to see it, but had no desire to see her firstborn grandson. She also goes on about how she knows her son's girlfriend is bad-mouthing her to their kids. She doesn't know anything of the kind. She's the one whose doing the bad-mouthing. She just becomes a truly foul woman. And the worst part is there was never any indication she was a devout Jew.
Camille is portrayed as this anarchist but he puts up with all of his mother's garbage. Of course, since he's letting his mommy support him, he can't really say boo to her. He's no doubt afraid his rotten mother will cut him off financially if he dares marry the mother of his children, so he won't marry her until his nasty mommy gives her permission. Of course, that's why Camille puts up with his rotten mother and even lets her see her grandchildren, but why the heck does his girlfriend put up with it? And would some woman really have a pack of kids out of wedlock because her boyfriend won't marry her unless mommy says it's okay?
It's stuff like this and Rachel's unbelievable transformation into her mother that make a lot of this hard to swallow.
My final analysis is there was enough material to write a book about Rachel and Frederic's romance and they could have left the Camille the wuss and Rachel the horrible Jewish mother out of it.