A New Song of Love From Oscar Hijuelos


Oscar Hijuelos is going to be a taking a lot of flack for his new book. The Fourteen Sisters of Emubo Members O'Brien. Readers expecting another gritty, melancholy and macho novel like. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love will be disappointed. Instead of the brutal realism of Mambo Kings, Fourteen Sisters is Latin American magical realism successfully transplanted to the United States. Where Mambo Kings depicted a world of men. Fourteen Sisters celebrates femininity, "the female principle of life, the nurturing things," as Hijuelos stated in a recent New York magazine interview.

Hijuelos' novel presents a communion, a coming-together. As a photographer during the Spanish-American War in 1898 Cubs Irish immigrant Nelson O'Brien meets Mariela Montez, whom he marries and takes home to the States. Margarita, the first of their fifteen children, is born at sea on route to America. Her recollections form the backbone of the novel, which recounts the fate of the fourteen sisters and the one brother. Emilio.

The circular structure of time in this family saga reminds one, inevitably, of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, However, with its wistful quality and its preoccupation with love in extreme old age, Hijuelos' book bears a closer affinity to Love in the Time of Cholera. A Pantagruclian gusto concerning sea, food, and bodily functions also informs the novel.

Fourteen Sister is likely to upset some readers Occurrences that seem disreputable in Garcia Marquez' Picturesque backwater towns become more distorting when they arise in Cobbleton, Pennsylvania at the beginning of the novel, a plane crashes because the Montez O'Brten house exudes so much femininity that the pilot is overcome and the engine malfunctions; later, the ghost of Nelson's sister returns to watch him make love to Mariels. American readers can swallow these events when they're set in Macondo and Aracatacas; magical realism has been relegated to the level of quaint events in imaginary south of the-border villages. Fourteen Sisters challenges us to believe that magical realism can take place even in the practical, level-headed United States of America. This is what makes Hijuelos' novel so magnificent, for it is a novel inspired by America and written for America. It depicts a U.S.A. that welcomes all possibilities and delights in paradox.

Hijuelos' deliciously extravagant imagination declares its presence on every page. His style is impassioned and almost impossibly lyrical. Often bawdy, Fourteen Sisters is also beautiful, reflective and wise. Particularly memorable is the birth of Emilio, who "descended out of the heaven of his mother's womb, through clouds of Cuban and Irish humors, slipping into this feminine universe at half past ten in an upstairs bedroom brilliant with sunlight, surrounded by the chatting, nervous, delighted, and overwhelming female presences that were his sisters."


The novel provides a chronicle of life in America from 1898 to the present and beyond (one of the sisters, a psychic, predicts the cancer-caused death of Fidel Castro in 1995) Hijuelos displays the inventive and playful quality that surfaced in Mambo Kings, which incorporated Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. Here, he manages to work in everyone from Teddy Roosevelt and jimmy Carter to Error Flynn and Noel Coward.

However, at times Hijuelos seems to lose control of the narrative, and the style suffers as well. As the sprawling novel winds down, Hijuelos' lyricism appears to run out of steam. The disappointing ending feels a little contrived. But this failure is insignificant, and serves to underscore the magnificent, visionary achievement of the rest of the novel. With The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O' Brien Oscar Hijuelos has given American readers a vibrantly imagined history of their nation.