“A luminous, Marquez-esque tale” (O, The Oprah Magazine) from the New York Times bestselling author of The Museum of Extraordinary Things: a forbidden love story set on a tropical island about the extraordinary woman who gave birth to painter Camille Pissarro—the Father of Impressionism.
Growing up on idyllic St. Thomas in the early 1800s, Rachel dreams of life in faraway Paris. Rachel’s mother, a pillar of their small refugee community of Jews who escaped the Inquisition, has never forgiven her daughter for being a difficult girl who refuses to live by the rules. Growing up, Rachel’s salvation is their maid Adelle’s belief in her strengths, and her deep, life-long friendship with Jestine, Adelle’s daughter. But Rachel’s life is not her own. She is married off to a widower with three children to save her father’s business. When her older husband dies suddenly and his handsome, much younger nephew, Frédérick, arrives from France to settle the estate, Rachel seizes her own life story, beginning a defiant, passionate love affair that sparks a scandal that affects all of her family, including her favorite son, who will become one of the greatest artists of France.
“A work of art” (Dallas Morning News), The Marriage of Opposites showcases the beloved, bestselling Alice Hoffman at the height of her considerable powers. “Her lush, seductive prose, and heart-pounding subject…make this latest skinny-dip in enchanted realism…the Platonic ideal of the beach read” (Slate.com). Once forgotten to history, the marriage of Rachel and Frédérick “will only renew your commitment to Hoffman’s astonishing storytelling” (USA TODAY).
Reading Group Guide
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From the New York Times bestselling author of The Dovekeepers and The Museum of Extraordinary Things comes a spellbinding tale of forbidden love, family secrets, and unimaginable beauty. Set in St. Thomas in the early 1800s, The Marriage of Opposites follows one of history’s lesser known women: headstrong and rebellious Rachel Pizzarro—the mother of one of Impressionism’s founding artists, Camille Pissarro.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the title. Which marriage or relationship does “The Marriage of Opposites” refer to? Where in the novel do you first recognize the title’s significance?
2. In Chapter 1, Rachel says, “Perhaps that was what my mother disliked most. I resembled her. I could not help but wonder if for some women, that was the worst sin of all.” Discuss Rachel’s relationship with her mother, her own stepchildren, and female relationships around her. What sort of resemblance does she mean? Compare these relationships with the one Rachel has with her son, Camille.
3. “. . . on this island, strength was a necessity” (page 22). Consider the power dynamics in the novel, from mental strength to willpower, physical strength versus financial dominance. Discuss what is meant when Rachel’s father tells her that her marriage is “a combining of strengths” (page 27). For these characters, which strength is most valuable?
4. Discuss the importance of identity in the novel. What are the roles of religion, race, and class as they contribute to each character’s definition of self?
5. Weather and the natural world figure strongly in The Marriage of Opposites. Consider how Rachel, Frédéric, and Camille view the rain and the heat. Discuss the differences or similarities in their points of view. How do descriptions of weather define life on St. Thomas and life in Paris?
6. There are many sorts of love that are “forbidden” in the novel. Why does the community disapprove of Rachel and Frédéric’s relationship? Why does Rachel later disapprove of her son’s relationship with a working member of her household, when she herself has been so close to Adelle and Jestine?
7. The mystical world plays a key part in life on the island. Often, characters speak of spells, spirits, and ghosts and use herbs to cure emotional and physical distress. Compare the role of spirituality on St. Thomas and in Paris. At what point does the mystical distinguish itself from Jewish tradition?
8. The relationship Madame Halevy forms with Camille? Why do you think he is so interested in her and the stories she has to tell?
9. Discuss this line from page 272: “But a servant, no matter how beloved, was not a friend, and a slave was a shadow, nothing more.” What did you learn about slavery and servant culture in St. Thomas in this novel? Do you feel it is similar to American slave-owner, servant-worker relationships? Can there be true friendships in a relationship where one person has more power than the other?
10. “Always pay heed to the woman who comes before you. If he’s treated her badly, he will treat you much the same” (page 231). How does Rachel’s understanding of Madame Petit affect the way she raises her children? Does this statement grant Lydia any sense of clarity on her father? Discuss how Rachel, Lydia, and other women understand the roles of the women who came before them.
11. The Marriage of Opposites contains a fluid definition of family. Many characters, both male and female, have illegitimate children who are unacknowledged, abandoned, or cast off. Discuss the different manifestations of family in this novel. Were you surprised to learn who Aaron and Jestine really are? Why or why not?
12. In the afterword, Alice Hoffman explains briefly how she came across the story of Pissarro’s mother. How was your reading of the novel or opinion of it affected by the knowledge that this is based on a true story?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. “Like the breakfast he’d had, the landscape was a familiar part of him that surfaced in his dreams and in his art” (page 257). With your book club, research Camille Pissarro’s artwork on the Internet or, if you are able, visit a local museum that features his work. Discuss how the novel’s setting is manifested in his work. Is The Marriage of Opposites characteristic of Pissarro’s style? Are there paintings that remind you of scenes in the novel?
2. Select one of Alice Hoffman’s other works, such as The Museum of Extraordinary Things or The Dovekeepers, for your next book club meeting. How are these works similar or dissimilar to The Marriage of Opposites.
3. Research the colonization of St. Thomas—especially the history of the Jews there—and native spiritual culture. Does anything in your research surprise you?
4. For your next book group, select a book about other “invisible” women in history. Try to discover the stories of women in your own family. Interview older relatives or read about history of women in your own culture.
5. To learn more about Alice Hoffman, visit her website at www.alicehoffman.com or connect with her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/alicehoffmanauthor.
A Conversation with Alice Hoffman
Though Camille Pissarro is globally known and celebrated, few people know this part of his history. What inspired you to write about Rachel Pizzarro? Where did you first learn about her?
I was at an exhibit of Pissarro’s work at the art museum at Williams College. It was there I first realized he was a Jew and had been born in St. Thomas. I’d always assumed he was French, as he was one of the fathers of Impressionism. I then wanted to discover what else I didn't know. When I began reading about the scandal his mother’s marriage had caused I knew I had found my story.
Your female protagonists are always formidable. How did you find and develop Rachel’s voice?
Luckily, my characters come to me fully formed. After reading about Rachel she was alive in my imagination and she spoke directly to me.
The title of the novel The Marriage of Opposites could apply to almost any marriage—or relationship, for that matter—in the work. How did you select that title?
“The Marriage of Opposites” is an alchemical term—to create any substance or circumstance one has to combine opposite materials, in love and in all things. This term seemed so right for the marriage of Camille Pissarro’s parents, but also for many other relationships in the novel, and then in a broader historical sense—that people from all over the world are thrown together on this island and that they create a marriage of their cultures.
The Museum of Extraordinary Things was set in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century, The Dovekeepers was set in biblical Judea, and The Marriage of Opposites is set in the 1800s. How do you create such rich and varied historical settings? What was your research and writing process for The Marriage of Opposites?
I usually read everything I can, then begin to write, then research again. It’s a process of layering fact and fiction. I want all the historical references to be correct, but I am also creating characters, both the ones based on historical characters and the ones who are completely imagined.
You’ve penned several dozen novels for both children and adults, as well as a memoir. Do you have a preference for a particular age group? Does a specific theme seem to weave its way into works for one age versus another? What do you see as the difference between writing in each genre?
I love writing for children and teens, mostly because I always feel that is such an important time in a reader's life. What you read at that point forms who you are as a reader. Each book comes to me as an adult novel or a children’s novel or a teen book or nonfiction. Some work comes to me as stories, other as novels. My themes are always the same: Love, loss, and survivorship. But the way I write about these themes differs, depending on the book.
Of your writing, do you have a favorite work? Is there one character whose story you’d like to return to?
I often miss characters when a book is written. I have missed Rachel Pizzarro greatly. I often think she is the sort of woman I wish I could be. I’ve thought it might be interesting to know more about the world of Practical Magic. And I’ve just written a children’s book called Nightbird, and I very much miss the town of Sidwell, Massachusetts, that I imagined.
Jewish life and history play a major role in your novels. What draws you to exploring Jewish themes?
For me, the Jewish themes very much related to my grandmothers and to their stories and to their struggles. It’s part of telling the story that hasn’t been told. I’ve enjoyed learning more about my own history and culture.
To further the above question, your publisher said that you consider The Marriage of Opposites the “story of the ultimate Jewish mother.” Both Rachel and Madame Pomié are intense mothers. Are they modeled after anyone in your own life?
Rachel Pizzarro has something of a bad reputation, as being bossy and controlling, which is the stereotype of the “Jewish mother.” I wanted to explore this and understand what it is to be a mother in a dangerous world where you are an outsider and your ultimate goal is to protect your children no matter the cost. Again, my grandmothers were the model for women who would do anything for their children.
Could you describe when and where you like to write? What does your desk look like?
I have to say, I don’t have a desk. I write wherever I am, whenever I can. Noise doesn’t bother me, and I prefer not to have a window, which would distract me. I write the way I read—on a couch, in a bed, on a train.
In a 2013 interview with Writer magazine, you said, “The idea of magic and reality intertwined is really appealing to me. I lived in a working-class suburb in Long Island, right over the border from Queens, so it was very gritty. Every house was the same. There were no trees. It was neither here nor there. It was the least magical place. And yet it felt magical. If you can view that place with magic, any place can be filled with magic.” Are there any magical stories, histories, or eras that you haven’t yet explored in a novel that you’re interested in researching one day?
For me, magic is a part of every story. It is the original story—myth and fairy tale— and I can’t imagine writing without some element of magic being a part of my work.
We’ve read that some your favorite authors include Emily Brontë, Toni Morrison, and Ursula Le Guin, among many others. Of your favorite books, is there one in particular you wish you’d written? Is there one particular book you return to often?
I love those authors. Toni Morrison is the greatest living author and I admire her more than any other writer. I am an Emily Brontë fanatic—for me, Wuthering Heights is the greatest psychological novel ever written. And as a fan of fantasy and science fiction, I have to say Le Guin transcends all genre writing—her worlds are astounding. I also often go back to childhood authors that meant so much to me, especially Ray Bradbury, who taught me so much about what it means to be a writer, and what it means to be human.
Are you working on anything new? Is there anything you can share with us?
My next novel is something completely different—modern, edgy, set in New York, with a character named Shelby who is desperately trying to find her place in the world.
Alice Hoffman is the author of more than thirty works of fiction, including The Book of Magic, Magic Lessons, The World That We Knew, Practical Magic, The Rules of Magic (a Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick), the Oprah’s Book Club Selection Here on Earth, The Red Garden, The Dovekeepers, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, The Marriage of Opposites, and Faithful. She lives near Boston.