The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman
The island of St. Thomas in the 19th century makes a vivid setting for a biographical novel about Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro and his parents. Rachel roams around the island with Jestine, the daughter of her family’s cook, Adelle, and only reluctantly agrees to marry Isaac Petit, an older Jewish merchant with three children. She loves his children and their own, but does not love Isaac. After Isaac’s death, his nephew Frederic travels from Paris to run the family business. Rachel and Frederic fall scandalously in love. Camille is one of their children, whose fascination with color and island life distract him from his work at the family’s store. Surprisingly, Rachel coldly discourages his artistic talent, although Camille gets the encouragement he needs from Rachel’s friend Jestine. Several of the characters spend time in Paris, also colorfully drawn. A very strong sense of place, lively dialogue, complex characters, and a touch of magical realism make this book an enchanting read.
All the Stars in the Heavens by Adriana Trigiani
A broad, sweeping novel about the life of Hollywood star Loretta Young and her family, including her secret daughter by Clark Gable. Italian immigrant Alda Ducci leaves a convent that’s a home for unwed mothers to be personal secretary to Loretta, and moves into the family home with Loretta’s mother and sisters. A friendly priest comes to weekly dinners, and rising stars like David Nivens come to stay. Loretta, accompanied by Alda, takes the train to Mount Baker, Washington to film A Call of the Wild with Clark Gable. They’re isolated, they flirt, and later Loretta finds herself pregnant. As Clark is married and his wife won’t give him a divorce, Catholic Loretta conceals her pregnancy and later “adopts” her own daughter, Judy. There are different accounts of Clark’s and Loretta’s relationship, including one from her own daughter-in-law, but it’s very romantic in Trigiani’s account, although doomed to end, just like a tamer romance with Spencer Tracy. I found the scenes on the movie sets and in the extended family home the most appealing, and the fictional character of Alda seemed more real than some of the others. The tone of the book was very dramatic, as if the author were trying to write a screenplay for a movie Loretta starred in, but it just seemed over the top to me. Also, Loretta’s children with husband Tom Lewis are barely mentioned and are never seen. A short chapter summing up everyone’s lives and deaths seemed rushed and could have been left out. The book did make me want to learn more about Loretta and Hollywood’s Golden Age, and I might watch some more of her movies.
Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor
The poet Emily Dickinson comes to life in this novel set in 1860s Amherst, Massachusetts, which also features her (entirely fictional) maid, recent Irish immigrant Ada Concannon. Emily writes her short poems, gardens, bakes, and occasionally visits with her sister-in-law Susan, who lives nearby with Emily’s brother Austin. Increasingly reclusive, Emily decides to wear only white, and rarely travels beyond her home. In contrast, Ada, 18, is hard-working, outgoing, and friendly. Ada first lives with her uncle, then with the Dickinsons. Her beau, Daniel Byrne, cannot protect her from a stalker, and Emily seeks her brother Austin’s reluctant help for Ada. Except for the stalker, this is a charming story told from two very different points of view, and it made me want to learn more about Emily Dickinson’s life. Several of Emily’s poems are included, a nice touch. Nuala O’Connor is an Irish author, and part of the book is set in Dublin, Ada’s hometown. An unusual and memorable historical novel.
I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira
If you enjoy reading about art or Paris, this book may be appealing. To begin with, I found the title a bit misleading. The main characters are Impressionist painters Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, and I was expecting a grand romance. Degas gives Mary painting advice, and they are friends from time to time, when he isn’t being excessively critical or rude. Occasionally they are more than friends, but mostly not. The author’s focus is on painting, the artists’ community in 19th century Paris, Paris itself, and the illnesses and vision problems of the characters. Berthe Morisot and her brother-in-law Édouard Manet have a shared past, and Mary’s parents and sister Lydia, subject of many of Mary’s paintings, are the other featured characters, especially after they move from Philadelphia to live with Mary in Paris. The summary of the last forty years of Mary Cassatt’s life and work and the lives of her family and colleagues at the end was too compressed, but overall the book really kept my interest.