by Alice Hoffman,
read by Gloria Reuben, Tina Benko, and Santino Fontana
This is a fictionalized account of the life of the mother of the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. It's a little bit of a fictionalized biography of the early life of the artist as well.
Author Alice Hoffman stays true to the basic facts about the artist's family. His mother, Rachel Manzana Pomié, was born to Jewish parents of French, Spanish, and Portuguese heritage, on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas (then part of the Danish West Indies, now the U.S. Virgin Island) in 1795. She married a widower with three children 21 years her senior, Isaac Petit, and had four children with him before his death in 1824.
Isaac's nephew, Frederic Pizzarro, seven years younger than Rachel, came to the island as his uncle's executor, and the two fell in love. The close-knit Jewish community on the island frowned upon a marriage between a nephew and aunt by marriage, and it was not for many years (and four sons) later that their private marriage ceremony was finally recognized.
One of those sons was Jacob Abraham Camille Pizzarro (he changed the spelling later), born in 1830. He was sent to boarding school in Paris at age 11, where he began to explore his artistic talents. He returned to St. Thomas at 17 to work in his father's business, but continued to work on his art, and went to Venezuela at age 21 and then on to Paris at age 25, in 1855. His parents followed shortly after, and Rachel never went back to St. Thomas, even after Frederic's death in 1865, which is about when the book ends.
Hoffman fleshed out her characters quite a bit beyond that, making Rachel in particular an intriguing woman. It's interesting to see how she tries to control her son Camille, just the way her mother tried to control her, with similar results. Hoffman also invented the characters on St. Thomas who are the Pizzarro's employees and friends there. There's an interesting subplot involving a family servant, Jestine, who is like a sister to Rachel. These secondary characters are interesting and add a lot to the story.
Hoffman also researched (as noted from the titles in her bibliography) the history of St. Thomas' buildings and Jewish community, as well as birds and folktales of the West Indies. The folktales are a major part of the story, and Hoffman's descriptions of the island of St. Thomas and the town of Charlotte Amalie make me want to visit them.
The audiobook readers make this book even better. Actress Tina Benko narrates the chapters told in Rachel's first person viewpoint. She has a rich, deep, throaty voice, just what I might imagine the real Rachel to have. Actor Santino Fontana reads the chapters told in Camille's first person voice (there aren't as many). Actress Gloria Reuben is wonderful as the narrator of all the other chapters, putting lots of emotion into her voice and adding to the magical realism of the story. Perhaps it is because, as she states, her parents are also from the Caribbean and of mixed heritage.
© Amanda Pape - 2017
[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library and my local public library respectively.]