Rachel is a headstrong, fiercely independent young, Jewish woman living with her family on the island of St. Thomas in the early 1800’s. Unfortunately, when her father’s business falters, it appears that the only solution is to marry Rachel off to an older man (with 3 young children), so that the two businesses can merge and hopefully prosper. Rachel is devastated, as this certainly will delay the realization of her dream, which is to one day sail off to live in Paris. Her best friend, and housemaid, Jestine, tries to convince her to resist, but she too is powerless in resisting the cultural pressures of her time and status as a woman. The two of them experience many heartbreaks and successes together as the saga of their lives moves forward. The one success that Rachel achieves, although this is one that causes her great pain as well, is that she ultimately becomes the mother of Camille Pissarro, the painter.
The writing of the tale is as lyrical as Pissarro’s paintings themselves. The author paints both St. Thomas and Paris with words, filling in the hues, the aromas, the sensations of each world. There is also a great amount of magic and fantasy, as Rachel’s faith mixes with that of the native culture of St. Thomas, and conjures up many fictional, imaginative stories that Rachel records for herself and for her children. And although there are a few paragraphs in which the author sort of meanders onto sidetracks, it is a story that keeps one glued because the characters are ones you don’t ever want to leave.
I admire Alice Hoffman for telling the story from Pissarro’s mother’s perspective. It is not just a fictionized biography, but it is truly a story of a strong woman in a time when women weren’t allowed to be strong. She shows how difficult the times were and how women’s powerlessness was analogous to that of the slaves at the time. Neither could own property, could determine who they would marry, or truly had control over decisions that were made for them by the men in their lives. This further deepened the emotional strength of the story.
Oh, how I’d love to go back to the Musee D’Orsay now!