Book Review Alert: Alice Hoffman’s The Marriage of Opposites

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Once again, I am my own worst publicist.  This review of Alice Hoffman’s latest work of historical fiction, The Marriage of Opposites, was published on line a few days ago by the Washington Independent Review of Books (http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/)  I just remembered to check today to see if it was up.  Et voila! Another little miracle of the cyberworld.

It was my particular pleasure to write this review, since I am (unbeknownst to her) beholden to Alice Hoffman for her work on behalf of The Mount Auburn Hospital’s Hoffman Breast Center.  Her efforts to help my local hospital create a state-of-the-art center for women to monitor their breast health meant that I was able to get extraordinary care by gifted doctors and technicians, from my mammograms to my now bi-annual followup appointments.  Best of all, I got the same diagnosis and treatment plan that I would have gotten if I’d signed on to cross the river and enter into the Boston medical realm–which I know for a fact, since my Mount Auburn team insisted that I go to Dana Farber for a second opinion.  How lucky am I, that I got the best possible care, and got it close enough to home that I could walk back and forth to my appointments, and stop and smell the roses along the way?  All of which made me very much happier than I would have been, had I been getting stuck in traffic on a regular basis, between Longwood Ave. and Storrow Drive, for the better part of a year.

So, on the off chance that Alice Hoffman ever googles herself and finds this review, bless you for all you do, beyond your extraordinary writing.

 

The Marriage of Opposites, by Alice Hoffman

When asked where she finds the sparks that beget her novels, author Alice Hoffman points to the overlooked details in history’s margins, as well as the stories that rarely make it into the history books. It’s these tales, more often than not family legends or tribal lore passed down by mothers to children, that shape her work.

In the writing of her latest novel, The Marriage of Opposites, Hoffman discovered the sparks as a curious string of factoid pearls, one after another. First, while attending a Williams College art exhibit, she noticed that the French Impressionist Camille Pissarro was born not in France, as she’d assumed, but on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. From there, she learned that St. Thomas had been part of the Danish West Indies, and was renowned in the 1800s as a refuge for freed slaves, religious-freedom seekers, and members of the Jewish diaspora who had been fleeing Europe since the Inquisition.

Hoffman subsequently discovered that Pissarro’s widowed mother had shocked the European-Jewish elders of St. Thomas when she and the nephew of her deceased husband — a young man who’d come to the island from France to settle his uncle’s affairs — fell in love and married, an act explicitly against the rules of their faith. With this rich cache of largely forgotten drama, Hoffman knew she had the threads with which to weave an extraordinary work of fiction.

And what a gift of a tale she has written. Using facts as her foundation, Hoffman has painted a mesmerizing scenery and imagined a collection of supporting characters to describe protagonist Rachel Pomie Petit Pizzarro’s rich and remarkable life. The Marriage of Opposites begins in Rachel’s voice; she is a young girl, headstrong and mature beyond her years, who sees all and understands far more than the grownups around her suspect.

This 12-year-old narrator provides a primer on her island’s past and describes the education she has gleaned both from her father’s library and at his side (an unusual act of generosity by an early-19th-century businessman toward his daughter). This education gave her an appreciation for subjects as varied as the inner details of the family business, the stories of Perrault and Mother Goose, and the streetscapes of faraway Paris.

In addition, Hoffman portrays young Rachel as the self-appointed collector of the island women’s stories: tales of animal magic, mysteries solved, and grudges held, along with rumors of spells concocted and ghosts who haunt the people. Rachel writes down everything she learns from the matriarchs but hides her notebooks from her disapproving mother, a woman impossible to please and leery of any behaviors that stray from the social mores of the day.

Years later, after Rachel has regaled her own children with her collected lore, she finds herself similarly fearful that they might stray from the rules she once found so stifling. Alas, the generations seem destined to inflict the same constraints on their children that were once inflicted on them, and the children inevitably suffer from these misguided, if well-intentioned, protections. That is, until they turn their backs on their elders’ expectations, pave their own way, and become their own storytellers.

Hoffman’s stellar imagination, along with the mixture of history and magic that is a primary signature of her writing, is prevalent throughout this novel. Where historians list names and dates and births and deaths, she expands her period tales with infusions of sights and scents, flora and fauna, and, often, magical messages. The pages of The Marriage of Opposites nearly ooze with the heat and humidity of island life, particularly life in the Caribbean borne within the constraints of whalebone corsets and starched collars.

The tropical conditions are a powerful element here; superstitions and witchcraft hang in the moisture, dripping from the rafters. There are also flashbacks that provide continuity throughout the novel: long-lost memories of water, of turtles, of unidentifiable sounds, and of visions of symbolic birds that appear at auspicious junctures. These sensory memories ebb and flow like the tide, returning when the moon is full and their power is most potent.  

To invest in both a fictionalized history and an imagined magical backstory takes a suspension of disbelief that might be beyond some readers’ comfort zones. But Hoffman’s capacity to blend stories based on real events with those of otherworldly powers is seemingly infinite. In fact, what might make this novel a bit hard to navigate is not its fantastical elements, but rather the multiple voices in which it’s told. The magic may be expected, but the changes in point of view are harder to adjust one’s ear to.

And yet, in the end, the stories within The Marriage of Opposites grow familiar, their tellings and retellings handed down from generation to generation. And with their retelling, Hoffman’s original threads — of a forgotten past, her discovery and reclamation of a world that once existed, and her portrayal of characters loving one another, rebelling, and reconnecting — are woven together into an unforgettable tale. It’s a story well told, and well worth passing along.

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A different sort of equinox

IMG_2042Here it comes…

September is when the New Year has always begun, in my book. Things commence with the click of a preset switch from summer to fall, whisking in new opportunities like a breath of fresh air. The world is all shiny shoes and sharpened pencils and clean slates, come September.

And while I have no particular need these days for either updated footwear or another box of Ticonderoga #2s, the sense of new beginnings is part of my DNA, ingrained beyond my own school days, beyond even my kids’ school days. Say goodbye to August, say hello to a brand new start.

I confess, it’s taken me a few weeks to switch gears this September, to feel energized by that shift from one season to the next. First off, there was the combination of heat and humidity that didn’t let up when August departed. I spent the summer sweltering, from my younger son’s steamy college graduation, back in May, until, well, very recently. My memories of that commencement day mostly have to do with seeking shade and sucking on ice cubes and trying to un-adhere myself from whatever I was sitting on or leaning against, all day long. It feels like I’ve been asking, “Is it hot, or is it just me?” nearly endlessly, ever since. Actually, I don’t bother with the second half of that query. Because I know.  These days, it’s always me.

So, between the heat and the haze and the hip surgery recovery and the extra hot flashes brought on by my post chemo and radiation medication, it’s been a sweltery slog of a summer. While others around me traveled to weddings and went rafting and water skiing and took in everything that makes summertime grand, I stayed close to home, trying to get some solid ZZZs in whatever sleeping positions have worked, paying regular visits to my PT gurus, and attending to my strength and stretching routine on the cool tile kitchen floor, under the ceiling fan. It hasn’t been my idea of perfect, but it’s definitely been what the doctor ordered.

What I could have lived without, during this stay-at-home summer, was the extra time I spent (or more accurately, wasted) in my self-imposed designated worrywart role. The sleepless hours lost to orthopedic discomfort provided a fertile playground for my imagination—a simple case of me having too much time lying awake, pondering the plights of loved ones whose paths are currently unclear.

The individual on that list who is least worthy of any of my 2AM concerns has been my younger son. Since that sticky cap-and-gown event back in May, he worked to get one more issue of a beloved undergrad publication to print, while also making time to practice for his better-late-than-never driver’s license road test.  I know he longs to be gainfully employed and living elsewhere–who wouldn’t, at his age?  But honestly, I like having him at home, and the hours devoted to parallel parking outings were a cheerful gift, considering the circumstances. He’s had his license for a month now, and (predictably) has discovered the wonders of the open road.  I’m happy for him, even as I miss our practice drives to a favorite diner that has fabulous egg dishes and plentiful side street practice venues. But still, I worry.  I know he wants to push off to the next thing, and I wish I could help him get there, wherever there may be. But I’m pretty much clueless as to what I could possibly be doing to help him, which is a hard reality to live with—mother as fossil, that’s me. And yet, and yet…he’s my baby, and I want him to be happy. That piece never goes away.

Then there are my dear in-laws, who are facing the whole panoply of growing old concerns, together and individually. Bottom line, no matter how much you anticipate your needs and ready yourself for your “golden years,” there’s simply no fool-proof primer for how your old age will play itself out. Moreover, there’s no road map for what to do when one member of a lifelong couple is considerably healthier than the other–which, unfortunately, is where my mother- and father-in-law find themselves. My heart aches for them both, while the list of entertaining and useful things I can do for them seems to be shrinking, my capacity to bring joy to their days, somehow diminished.

I’ve reached a curious point with both my octogenarian and my twentysomething loved ones, where the arcs of my roles in their lives have intersected.  It comes down to this: I can’t fix any of my family members’ most significant problems anymore.  These days, there’s just no kissing anyone’s boo-boos to make everything better. For the generation ahead of me and the one coming up behind me, it feels like the best I can do is to simply be present, and listen, and not try to jolly them out of the very real feelings they’re having about their lives these days—both the feelings that are part of being launched into adulthood, and the feelings that come when one’s health and one’s competencies, so long taken for granted, start slipping away.

I guess I’ve arrived at like some form of parenting in reverse. There is no helicopter mothering-mode for the stages my sons have entered, and there’s no way to turn the clock back for my in-laws. There’s only the acknowledgement that my family role is tilting to someplace on the other side of a generational equinox.  And all I can do, from this side, is to be present, and thoughtful.  It may seem useless, but it really does count, to just let another person know that you care.  Even when there’s no fix to offer with the caring.  I’ll always be a mom, and I’m still a dutiful daughter-in-law, but I no longer can pretend to be the source of perfect solutions to the perils of growing up, or growing old.

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This past week, the autumnal equinox officially turned the page from summer to fall.  And with this leap towards the darker side of the calendar, the humidity finally left town.  So now I’m enjoying the sleep that comes with a chill in the air, a breeze through the open windows, and an extra blanket pulled up over my shoulders.  The days are growing shorter, air is crisper, and that sense of fresh starts has finally arrived. I’m grateful for the seasonal sense of new possibilities, even as I realize I’m looking at the world from a new vantage point, around a new corner on the road of my own life story.

 

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Hey, extra credit if you think you’ve already seen this post’s photos.  They are indeed reruns, seen here in years past.  I won’t bore you with my tech trials and tribulations; let’s just say, getting my phone and my laptop to play nicely with one another has been an ongoing project.  I’ll let you know when I can get the photos on my phone to jump to iPhoto.  Until then, arghhhh…