An enjoyable read for fans of historical fiction and romance. Some characters and storylines seemed a bit stilted and less fleshed out than I would have liked, but the descriptions of St. Amalie and Paris thrilled the imagination. In addition, it was a amusing to imagine what the personality of famous painter Camille Pizarro may have been like and fascinating to learn more about his roots.
Please take any of my criticisms with a grain of salt. This was the kind of story that I couldn't put down; I started it on Saturday morning and stayed up well past my usual bedtime that night to finish it. I had to know how it ended.
While Hoffman stuck close to history for Pissaro's family, she invented the other important characters. While Rachel's family was compelling, it was her best friend Jestine and her family that I couldn't get enough of. Scenes that included Jestine were my favorites, in part because her friendship brought out the best part of Rachel (and later her son Jacobo/Camille), but also because the character herself suffered without being tragic- or a martyr.
The same can't be said of Rachel. As a young girl she's willing to defy convention (in no small part because her mother personifies convention), and while she is willing to make a sacrifice for her beloved father, when she meets Frederic as a young widow she is willing to risk not only her own reputation but also the prospects of her children in order to satisfy her soul's desire. Although Rachel gets what she wants, the battle with the rest of St. Thomas' Jewish population changes her; when her son wants to run off to Paris (just as she did at his age) and later marry someone outside of their faith (which some might consider a little better than marrying within her late husband's family), she is his biggest obstacle, even after beloved grandchildren are born. She sees her mother in herself and herself in her son, but she refuses to make peace with either of them not in spite of but because of that.
That is a familiar family tragedy, but what makes it more perplexing is that she spends much of her life indignant over the treatment mixed race Jestine suffers. Rachel rails when her cousin, who loves Jestine, succumbs to pressure and leaves for Paris when Jestine is pregnant. He is a coward for not transgressing expectations, and her estimation of him doesn't improve throughout her life even if her outlook on social mores does.
There are two secrets which propel the primary subplot of the book. The first is easy to discern, but the other comes as a surprise (in part because the math doesn't seem to work out). As Rachel became less sympathetic, I found myself wishing for more of that story and less of hers. I wonder if this was a conscious choice Hoffman made.
St. Thomas, a character in and of itself, came alive for me as I was reading. I could well understand why a dreamer would want to leave it, and then also understand why it came to haunt people after they left. I think it's also worth asking what Rachel really desired when she wanted to leave for Paris. Was it adventure in a larger world? Or was it acceptance from the culture that had ghettoed her and her ancestors on St. Thomas? Her experiences of Paris as an older woman may not answer the question for her younger self, but the fate of another character who does have the "privilege" of growing up there is a poignant, almost cautionary counterpoint.
This is a beautifully passionate & intricately written historical fiction account of the family of Camille Pissarro that is compelling from the very first chapter. It also gives insight into the history of & life on St. Thomas of which I knew very little.
The main strength of this book is its descriptive powers. I knew nothing about St. Thomas, and now I do. Hoffman's tales of the variety of lives on the island in the 19th c. are marvellous. The people she focuses on are also well described, whether you hate them or love them. Hoffman's also great with secrets--just read the various reviews to see how badly different readers misinterpret them! The major love story is beautifully told, and so is the irony of Rachel's refusal to let her favorite son live his own life as she so passionately lives hers. I didn't feel the story went slowly; or if I did, I loved that part.
It would have made things much easier for me to follow if there had been a genealogy chart to sort out who was who. But then I suppose the secrets would have been given away too soon.
This is an amazing book which teaches those of us, who don't know anything about St Thomas, the history, the geography, the weather, the beauty and the negative about this island. It teaches us about how Denmark treated the jews and the slaves on the island. Even though it is slow in places, it seems to move like the molasses the Island is known for, sweet, exotic and slow.
Rachael, born in the 19th century on the island of St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies. Her life growing up on the island and her desire to go live in Paris. It covers her upbringing as a girl and her two marriages. Her fight to have a choice in a time when women had no rights.
1st marriage is arranged but she is never in love. 2nd marriage is one of love. She has 8 children from the 2 marriages. Her best friend, a creole girl Jestine, and how as an old women, Rachael learns the family secrets.
Jestine is her half sister as her father had an affair with Jestine's mother Adele, the family maid. And Aaron, the baby Rachaels mother adopted, is the son of one of the leading Jewish ladies. The boy was born out of wedlock and secretly passed onto Rachaels mother who told people he was her orphaned nephew. Aaron falls in love with Jestine but they are not allowed to marry.
Aaron and Jestine have a baby but Aaron is sent to Paris to separate them. Jestine's baby is later kidnapped by Aaron and his wife. Aaron still loves Jestine and feels the baby Lyddie will have a better life in Paris. In the end Rachael and Jestine at 60, finally move to Paris. Jestine is reunited with her daughter and Rachael struggles with her youngest son who chooses to be an impressionist painter rather than run the family business.
Altho Rachael fought for what she wanted she refused to let her son do as he wanted. Their differences almost tear them apart but eventually Rachael accepts Camilles passion for art.
Not a good review of the book but needed to get some notes down.
The appeal of this book is really in the strong writing of Alice Hoffman. It will appeal to people who appreciate a good technically solid prose. The story is a bit slow but well told and the descriptions of island life are lovely.
Having left it to my kids to pick out a book for me, I came home with this. Never would I have ever picked this book on my own but was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed it. Mixing fact and fiction it felt a little like watching a soap opera but in the back of my mind I couldn't help thinking that some of what I was reading actually happened. I loved the main character Rachel and found the book hard to put down. Yes, there are parts that are slow but all in all I thoroughly enjoyed this book and am debating whether to check out the Dovekeepers.
When my book club decided on this book, I wanted to read it because of what I knew about the artist. However, I found it to be slow going and hard to finish. I wonder if it's fair to historical figures to create so many negative character traits and events around them. Based on a minimum of biographical data, Hoffman imagines a dysfunctional family who have interactions and spiritual experiences that may be totally out of character for the actual people.
I loved this story - at times I felt that it moved a bit slowly, but I was always interested enough to keep going. My only complaint was that at the end, nobody was aware of what went before and all those details were lost. But I suppose that the details of all our pasts are lost to every generation. I wish we could all know the details of our predecessors' lives and loves.
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