In a heated confrontation between the mother and son at the center of Alice Hoffman's new novel, Rachel Pizzarro complains to her son Jacob that "the way you paint doesn't look anything like this world."
"You think this world is all there is?" Jacob shouts back, then thinks to himself: "The colors I used might not have been of this world; instead they showed what lay below the surface of this world, the spark of color at the deepest core."
Jacob Pizzarro was the given name of Camille Pissarro, a master of the 19th century's Impressionism movement that valued color over lines and contours. His life is brilliantly imagined in "The Marriage of Opposites," and Hoffman, to great effect, tells much of the story through his mother's eyes.
Rachel was born on the island of St. Thomas in 1795. Her father was a struggling merchant who arranged her marriage to an island businessman when she was a teen. Rachel respected Isaac Petit, but did not love him. When he died, she was left to care for seven children. She clung to her children just as she clung to the belief that one day she would experience true love.
That person turned out to be Frédéric Pizzarro, her dead husband's nephew. Frédéric traveled from Paris to St. Thomas to take over his uncle's business. He was 22, seven years younger than Rachel. Despite the scandal it caused within the island's small Jewish community, they married.
One of their four children was Jacob, who would later choose to go by Camille, his middle name, and change the spelling of his last name. Pissarro's talents were nurtured on St. Thomas, long before he moved to Paris and made his name as an Impressionist painter.
Hoffman's atmospheric imagining of Pissarro's life is fabulously dressed in the color and light of its two dramatic settings. With painterly detail she captures his young life in St. Thomas, where he "had come upon the core of the meaning of life, to discover and re-create beauty." He could not resist painting the pink bougainvillea, the fragrant lavender bushes and the green parrots of this tropical island. Later, he was inspired by the "gorgeous madhouse" that is Paris with its "cold, purple air" and its "dim, mauve-colored" light.
Pissarro, Hoffman writes, was "greedy for all the color in the world." She drenches us in the world's limitless palette through the extraordinary story of one man's determination to capture every shade and hue.
Carol Memmott's reviews have appeared in the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.