Wednesday, August 10, 2016


I have enjoyed Alice Hoffman’s magical realism novels for years, but her historical novels, like this and The Dovekeepers, did not hold my attention at all.  This book mostly takes place in a Jewish community in St. Thomas in the 1800s.  The main character is Rachel, who, at a very young age, marries an older man with three children.  The purpose of this union is to cement a liaison with a man who can potentially save her family’s business.  When the husband dies, his nephew Frederic comes from France to take over his uncle’s role in the business.  He further steps into his uncle’s shoes when he falls in love with Rachel.  However, the Jewish community objects to a marriage between these two, based on the fact that they are “family members,” but Rachel and Frederic refuse to split up.  Their son Camille Pissarro eventually paves the way for a reconciliation between his parents and the Jewish community, and he goes on to become a famous artist of the Impressionist movement in France.  There are other forbidden romances in the novel, some with tragic consequences involving the progeny of these romances.  Even with all of the secrets and intrigue, this book dragged for me.  When Frederic enters the picture, the plot gets a little more juicy, but then the feud with the Jewish community occupies way too many pages, as do descriptions of flowers and of Camille’s unsuitability for the family business.  More annoying is Rachel’s transformation from being somewhat of a poster-child for women’s rights to a mother who is bent on stifling her son’s artistic aspirations.  Later, her disapproval of his choice of servant girl as his wife brands her a total hypocrite in my book.  I get it that she objects to her son’s marriage outside the faith more so than his marrying someone of lower social status. Still, when I look back not just on her own fight to marry the person of her choice but also her friend Jestine’s heartbreaking separation from the man and daughter she loved, I just don’t understand how she can suddenly be so obstinate when her son wants to follow his heart.  And one more complaint:  What happened to Rachel’s stepsons, David and Samuel?  At some point, the author abandons them and never fills us in about their fates.

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