Covering 30 square miles, the island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean is a place of lush beauty, fragrant with jasmine, surrounded by blue-green water. This seeming paradise was a refuge for Jews fleeing the Inquisition, crossing the ocean from Spain and Portugal. Alice Hoffman sets her latest novel “The Marriage of Opposites” (Simon and Schuster) on the island, where a synagogue rebuilt in the early 1800s has a sand floor — even as its walls were covered with fine mahogany and a crystal chandelier was hung in its center — to remind congregants of an earlier time, in other places, when they’d have to muffle the sounds of their prayer gatherings for fear of being discovered.
The bestselling novelist and author of more than 30 works of fiction, Hoffman was inspired by the life of the leading Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, who was born Jacobo Camille Pizzarro in 1830 on what was then the Danish colony of St. Thomas. She saw an exhibit of his work in the Berkshires and was surprised to learn that he was Jewish. Subsequent research led her to his mother, Rachel Pomie Pizzarro, an extraordinary figure who was born on St. Thomas in 1795 to parents who fled a nearby island. On St. Thomas, the King of Denmark outlawed new slavery and gave Jews the same rights as others, including practicing their religion freely. Hoffman stays as close to the facts of Rachel’s life as possible, creating a story infused by the island’s radiance and folklore, and the comfortable but still anxious situation of the small Jewish community.
Some said that everything on the island tasted of molasses, which along with rum was one of the two main exports). Some of the Europeans who traveled there for business couldn’t abide the heat and intense, bright light, and weeping could be heard in darkened homes of French wives who accompanied their husbands. The Jewish women, who spent their afternoons visiting one another and sipping tea, might have appeared delicate, but they were hardy: most could climb up on their roofs and bolt the windows closed in times of heavy storms.
Rachel was willful, exuberant and rule-breaking, drawn to the mysteries of the island as a young girl, with considerable loyalty and compassion; she was as wise in the ways of business as any man, although she had no standing as a woman. Pomie, her father’s name, recalls the family’s apple orchards in France.
While growing up, Rachel dreamed of seeing Paris, and at night would sneak into her father’s library and read his leather-bound volumes and look at his maps by candlelight. While her father wanted her to be educated, hoping the laws of inheritance would change so that she would be able to run the family business, her mother did not. The two women shared a relationship colder than anything on the sun-drenched island. Rachel’s dreaming was cut short when she agreed to an arranged marriage with a widower twice her age with three children, who would become her father’s business partner. They had four more children, the last born after his sudden death; she took to being a mother in ways that surprised her. But with seven children, she felt even more stuck on the island. When Frederic, a young cousin of her late husband’s is sent from France to manage the business, the two find great love together, even as the community considers their marriage scandalous as they are considered relatives. They live in dignity, yet they and their children are initially treated as outcasts, which later informs the artist’s worldview.
From a young age, Jacobo Camille, a son of Rachel and Frederic, was clever and dreamy, wanting his freedom. Preferring the harbor to school, he studied the waves, sand, birds and light; the landscape was his library. He got out of bar mitzvah lessons by giving his tutor a bottle of rum from the family store and instead would wander in the mountains with his sketchbook. He was Rachel’s favored son, and he shared her determination.
Hoffman’s books are known for their inventive, compelling storytelling. “The Marriage of Opposites” unfolds through multiple voices, and long-held secrets are revealed through confidences shared. This is her third successive novel with a dramatic narrative on a Jewish theme. “The Dove Keepers,” which was made into a two-part television film that aired earlier this year, was set in ancient Israel, and “The Museum of Ordinary Things” took place in a Coney Island neighborhood of immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century. T
“I write to learn more about where I came from, what my stories were,” Hoffman says. She tends to do projects in threes, so this is the last of her Jewish-themed historical novels, at least for now.
Hoffman, who grew up on Long Island, links her interest in Jewish stories to her strong connection to her grandmother Lillie, an immigrant from Russia who ran her own sewing shop in the Bronx (keeping a hammer nearby in case of thieves), and never gave up, volunteering at a nursing home well into her 80s. Her grandmother split her retirement check with Hoffman, enabling her to become a writer. Hoffman wrote her first novel “Property Of” at 21, while in graduate school, and published it shortly after, beginning her distinguished career.
Alice Hoffman will read from “The Marriage of Opposites” at the first event in this year’s Jewish Week Literary Summer on Monday, Aug. 3 at
7 p.m. She will discuss the novel in conversation with Alice Eve Cohen, author of “The Year My Mother Came Back,” at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, 7 W. 83rd St. The event is free, but reservations are recommended, firstname.lastname@example.org.