The Marriage of Opposites

The Marriage of Opposites


Alice Hoffman, Simon & Schuster, 2015

“I suppose this is what love can do to a woman, bring her into a garden at night, convinced she somehow can affect fate’s plan with her desire.  Love like this was a mystery to me.  I didn’t understand how people allowed sheer emotion to get the better of them.  You couldn’t see love, or touch it, or taste it, yet it could destroy you and leave you in the dark, chasing after your own destiny.”

Alice Hoffman’s heroine, Rachel Pomie, is a quintessential feminist ahead of her time.  Raised in the Jewish community of St. Thomas, USVI, in the early 1800s, Rachel wants to read and educate herself and has no interest in love or marriage.  Her doting father indulges her intelligence and independence until his failing business necessitates that he arrange a marriage of convenience.  Suddenly, Rachel — a quirky would-be spinster — finds herself married to a much older man, and step-mother to his three surviving children.  (Her husband’s first wife as well as five of his eight children died young — many to yellow fever.)  Amazingly, this true-to-life historical figure embraces her new family with abandon and compassion.  She may not feel romantic love for her husband, but their union is imagined and descriptively documented by Hoffman as one of devotion, mutual respect and a gentle kindness that endears the reader to Rachel’s complicated and engaging free-spirit.

The Marriage of Opposites tells a captivating tale of the intersection of love, race, spirituality, art, light and family.  Hoffman weaves together what is known about Pomie and the Jewish community of St. Thomas (home to the longest continual synagogue congregation in the US territory) in the early to mid 1800s.  Family secrets decorate the background of Rachel’s relationships, and these secrets inform and interlace each generation.

Hoffman captures the mysticism, light and seductive beauty of the landscape of St. Thomas and its people, and aptly uses these themes to convey complex emotions and human dynamics:

“I practiced my art until I was ready to complete a real portrait.  I chose to sketch Jestine as she worked dyeing clothes, and the to paint that image.  When I sketched her I saw something in her face I hadn’t noticed before.  All at once I saw that the color of grief was blue and that it radiated from her.  I painted her in that shade.  Flesh tones didn’t show the real substance of people, neither their physical aspects nor their souls.”

The full extent of Rachel’s historical significance is not publicized on the book’s jacket and is revealed slowly as her life’s journey evolves.  This understated approach to storytelling enhances the book’s appeal.  Hoffman’s riveting and memorable work of historical fiction welcomes the reader into the minds and eyes of impressionist artistic expression, and the heart and soul of true love.

Rachel’s story also demonstrates one of the most interesting aspects of psychology:  the human tendency to repeat the past.  Most schools of psychology share an emphasis on this tendency.  Cognitive therapy explores learned thought patterns; behavioral theory chronicles learned behaviors.  Systems theory emphasizes that familiar dynamics feel most comfortable, so they are repeated even if they are not optimal.  Psychoanalytic theory describes the powerful drive of a repetition compulsion, which compels us to repeat the most painful unresolved conflicts in our lives.  The repetition is driven by an unconscious fantasy attached to our actions that we will finally master the situation and therefore heal old wounds.  Instead, we typically relive a defining pattern and revisit our long-standing pain.

Holiday Note:  If you are in need of a romantic and meaningful last minute holiday gift — The Marriage of Opposites is a thoughtful choice!

Elisabeth LaMotte

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