Genre: Historical Fiction
- How do parents’ lives and decisions impact their children?
- Is it possible to love someone too much?
Opening line: “I always left my window open at night, despite the warnings I’d been given.”
This book follows the life of Rachel Pomie (later Petit and Pizzarro), the mother of Camille Pissarro, a painter famous for his contributions to Impressionism. We meet Rachel as a willful young Jewish woman with a head for business. She lives in Charlotte Amalie, a small town on the island of St. Thomas, although her heritage is Dutch/French, and she dreams of one day going to Paris. Her father insists on educating her, despite her mother’s protests. At 18 she is married to Isaac Petit, a much older man, and becomes the mother to his children. Rachel is surprised to find that she takes to mothering naturally and falls in love with the children, though not their father. She soon has several more children of her own. Isaac is now managing her family’s business, but when he dies she discovers that he’s all but ruined them. She now is a single mother of seven children.
Isaac’s nephew, Frederic Pizzarro, is sent by the Petit family in France to take over the business and hopefully revitalize it. Frederic doesn’t expect to have to contend with Rachel, the fierce matriarch. The two have an instant attraction. Their union is condemned by the Jewish community on the island because of their familial ties, but they proceed anyway, having several children outside of wedlock until their marriage is finally recognized. Throughout the book, they remain steadfastly in love with each other.
Rachel’s favorite son, Jacobo Camille, is born and her mother’s curse—that Rachel’s children would give her as much pain as Rachel gave her mother—comes to fruition. Jacobo is a difficult baby, and he grows into a difficult child and then young man. Rachel and Frederic want Jacobo to run the family business, but he spends most of his time painting and cavorting with the painter Fritz Melbye. Jacobo also befriends the ancient Madame Helevy, one of Rachel’s mother’s friends, and Rachel’s nemesis in the Jewish community.
Eventually Rachel is convinced to allow Jacobo, who now goes by Camille, to pursue his passion for painting, and she supports him throughout the rest of her life, although she still causes him grief by not approving of his wife (who was her maid).
There are several wonderful subplots entwined in the narrative, particularly the story of Jestine, Rachel’s childhood friend, whose daughter Lydia is stolen at a young age. Camille helps Jestine reunite with Lydia in Paris many years later.
“The sins of the fathers” (or in this case, the mothers) is an apt phrase for this book. We see how the betrayals and secrets of Rachel’s parents come to light many years later, affecting Jestine, Rachel, and their children. Rachel’s decisions also permanently change the course of her children’s lives—for good and for bad.
I’m not sure if I like Rachel’s character—but I certainly admire her. She pursues her desires with ferocity, but it doesn’t feel like selfishness. It feels like she can’t help it. One thing is constant: her love for her children, especially Camille.
Although this book doesn’t quite live up to The Dovekeepers (which would be very difficult, since The Dovekeepers is simply astounding), here again we see the magical realism and the bonds of sisterhood that Alice Hoffman is so expert at writing. After this book, I can definitely say I’m an Alice Hoffman fan.
Quotes: “Love him more, not less.”
What I’m Reading Next: Max Perkins, Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg
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