I have read every one of Alice Hoffman’s novels and it seems her storytelling improves with age – her last novels The Dovekeepers and The Museum of Extraordinary Things were both commercial and critical successes. All the latest novels concern real events and people, albeit with a dose of the magic realism that is her trademark. This novel focuses on the origins of painter Camille Pizarro – the Godfather of Impressionism – and paints a beautiful and intoxicating picture with words.
The novel begins from the viewpoint of Pizzarro’s mother, Rachel Pomie Petit Pizarro, who leads us onto the exotic island of St. Thomas where she was born in 1795. Rachel’s grandparents settled on the island of St. Thomas after the King of Denmark gave an edict that Jews could live as citizens and freely practice their religion on the island. Rachel and her lifelong friend Jestine seem to live within a painting; the island is brought beautifully to life by Hoffman in intoxicating colour. The landscape brims with every shade of green, red and blue while the interiors boast silvers and golds – although the most important colour is ‘haint blue’ the colour of protection from ghosts, spirits, thieves, demons and sorrow. The senses are brought alive at every turn from descriptions of ships disembarking at port where French ladies would faint from heat within seconds to the flavours of food and drink: ‘pumpkin punch, peanut punch, coconut water and lemon tea’.
Rachel is a strong character and pushes against the constraints of the Jewish community as much as she relishes the stability it gives her. Her best friend Jestine is a black girl, the daughter of their maid, and they even sneak out together at night when they lie on the beach and watch the sea turtles lay and emerge from their eggs. Rachel learns more of the magic and folklore of the island from Jestine and Adelle than she would from her own family, picking up local folktales as well as useful herbal remedies. However, this freedom is curtailed quickly when Jestine falls in love with Rachel’s adoptive brother Aaron. He is sent away to Paris while Rachel, for whom Paris has been a life-long dream, is betrothed to Isaac Petit a widower who is 44 years old and has three children. Despite her dreamy and rebellious nature, Rachel is pragmatic about this marriage and grows to love Isaac in her way shown in the way she continues to tend to his grave and that of his first wife lest their spirits become restless. When Isaac dies Rachel is left with six children and a business to run. In this community women cannot inherit businesses, and with this one in dire straits it seems that Rachel and her children have an uncertain future. It is here where a magical and transgressive love story begins.
Isaac’s nephew Frederic is sent from Paris to oversee the business and Rachel fears everything being taken away. She resents the very idea of him, but their first meeting does not go as she expects. Frederic catches sight of his uncle’s widow with her hair down over one shoulder and in nothing but her white shift. Frederic’s thoughts are anything but business-like:
‘he could feel his desire as she glances at him…the things he wished to do to this woman he could not have brought himself to say aloud’.
Despite their familial connection and the fierce criticism of their community Frederic and Rachel begin a passionate and enduring love affair. Rachel begs and petitions the Grand Rabbi of Denmark to recognise their union as they are shunned by their congregation and their children are forced to attend the Caucasian school. Eventually, as time passes by, Rachel and Frederic’s transgression is forgotten as other troubles concern the islanders and the family becomes part of the community once again. Camille is one of their four children and from an early age harbours a talent and incredible passion for painting.
Camille and his mother have a difficult relationship based in his birth that, Rachel likes to remind him, took three whole days. He is, undeniably, her favourite child but also the one destined to be her most difficult. From Rachel’s perspective she sees an ungrateful son who takes for granted the thriving family business she wants him to run. From Camille’s perspective painting is his life and he cannot understand how the mother, who suffered shunning from her whole community to follow her heart, does not understand this type of passion. This is where the novel has come into some criticism; Rachel is seen to transform from the spirited and rebellious young woman to the rigid old matriarch. I think Hoffman is exploring how familial patterns often repeat themselves. As Rachel ages she does become more conventional and maybe because of her own difficulties she wishes Camille an easier life than the one she chose. The way she treats Camille is cruel though. She mocks his work and tells him he paints the world as no one else sees it. For Camille this criticism is actually a compliment – he has a unique vision and painting is like an addiction for him, so much so that he eventually boards a ship and runs away to South America. On his return to St. Thomas, sick and broke, Rachel tries once again to ignite his interest in the business and keep him beside her. Although Camille goes through all the motions of working in their store, learning how to do the books and going to synagogue with his father even Rachel can see his is a shadow of his real self. Finally accepting that keeping her son close by is like keeping a wild animal in a cage, Rachel sends him on a mission; Camille goes to Paris to learn his craft, but also to track down Jestine’s illegitimate daughter.
This final part of the novel is quieter, calmer and a huge contrast to the bright, lively island Camille has left behind. He thrives in Paris and succeeds in both his mission for Jestine and his studies, but when Frederic and Rachel leave the island for the city she has always dreamed of Camille finds one last way of disappointing her. Camille falls in love with Rachel’s maid Julie Vellay and despite her objections they set up home and have a family together. Rachel feels diminished in this section of the novel, almost as if her power is inextricably linked with the complicated and hypnotic island she has left behind. Despite longing all her life for Paris it is in St. Thomas where she is at her most vibrant. Rachel does not seem to realise how much of her is made up of the folklore and community of the place she has left behind, just as she seems oblivious that she has become that intransigent mother figure who thwarted her own dreams. The novel brings up serious social issues such as the racism both Jestine and her mother endure, echoed later for Jestine’s daughter when her rich husband finds out the truth of her background. We see how Camille, as a man, is able to fulfil his own desires in a way Rachel never can until her old age simply because she is a woman. It explores the constraints but also the comforts of a close knit religion and community. Of course it wouldn’t be Alice Hoffman without the stories of talking parrots, the half turtle woman who has a human soul, the eternal apple tree that grows in St. Thomas but deliver delicious apples with the taste of France and also the holy man who holds powerful herbs and potions for love and to heal the sick. Hoffman blends this folklore seamlessly alongside the history of the Jewish community on the island, the sketchy autobiographical details of Rachel’s life and the fictional story she weaves around it all. I have read criticism that the real life figure of Pizzarro is lost in this mystical and historical tale and that it is hard to recognise the origins of Impressionism and the inspiration he was to Cezanne and Gaugin. For me this criticism misses the point, because book is not about Camille Pizarro, it is all about Rachel.