“The Marriage of Opposites” by Alice Hoffman is a novel set in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands and Paris, following the life of the mother of the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. It is also the story of his parents’ unlikely romance and marriage.  

Rachel Manzana Pomié is the only living child of a Jewish shipping merchant and his wife who had escaped persecution in the Bordeaux region of France by emigrating eventually to the island of St. Thomas. It was there that the King of Denmark had proclaimed Jewish people were free to practice their religion.

In 1795, the year Rachel was born, 75 Jewish families lived on the island. Her father ran a small import-export business. Rachel adored him. He encouraged her to read and be involved in the business. Her mother, though, was unforgiving, and as the mother’s dissatisfaction grew, the daughter increasingly wanted to leave the island.

Eventually Rachel’s father arranges a marriage for her with his widowed business partner, Isaac Petit. He is much older than Rachel, and, though he is kind, there is no love between them.  

Rachel does fall in love with his three children, and the couple had three more of their own. Six years later, Isaac died, leaving Rachel with six children and a seventh about to be born.

The family business has begun to fail, but by law she is not allowed to own it.

Frederic, Isaac’s 22-year-old nephew, has been sent from Paris to settle his uncle’s affairs.

The Jewish community forbids any romantic relationship between them since they are related, though not by blood.

They fall in love, with the result that Rachel and her children are shunned by the Jewish community.  

The couple have four children without being married in the eyes of the congregation. The third child, born in 1830, was Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro, who in later life became as defiant about following his heart as Rachel had been.

Much of the second half of the novel concerns his development from a schoolboy at boarding school in Passy to an en plein painter.

An unfounded anger at Camille consumes Rachel’s life but the author under-explores the role of the disappointed parent and the conflict between mother and son. The narrative is complex, switching between first-person and third-person narrators.

The novel describes the light on St. Thomas, the blue-green sea and its lush landscape and how these all played a part in the development of Pissarro’s style and his eventual reputation as the father of Impressionism.

Taking place in the first half of the 19th century when morés were changing, the novel is an absorbing, turbulent account of the mother of one of the century’s greatest painters.  

Pissarro led the rebellion in the art world, befriending and influencing many younger painters like Monet and Cezanne.

Rachel Manzana Pomié Petit Pissarro died in Paris in 1889 at age 94.