Oscar Hijuelos’ fourth novel begins with an epigraph from Clement A. Miles, author of the 1912 study Christmas in Ritual and Tradition: “It is difficult to be religious, impossible to be merry, at every moment of life, and festivals are as sunlit peaks, testifying above dark valleys, to the eternal radiance.” Mr. Ives’ Christmas is the story of a life that, while not devoid of dark valleys, bears witness to eternal radiance.
For Edward Ives, called “Eduardo” by his many Hispanic friends and “Mr. Ives” by the respectful voice of the novel, the most significant experiences seem to occur during Christmas seasons, the sunlit peaks that sustain his trust and cheer throughout the calendar. A few days before Christmas in 1967, however, his beloved seventeen-year-old son Robert is shot to death on a New York sidewalk outside church by a fourteen-year-old stranger. The defining event of Mr. Ives’s life, the gratuitous murder of a promising young man who was scheduled to enter the Franciscan order in six months, tests the father’s faith and reveals his character. The misfortunes that Mr. Ives suffers are not exactly those of Job, but his one traumatic loss challenges his devout Catholicism and his magnanimity.
Mr. Ives’ Christmas is constructed not around an intricate concatenation of events but rather the textures of seven decades in the life of one lambently ordinary man. A foundling who had been deposited on the steps of a Brooklyn orphanage at the age of four, Edward Ives was adopted at six by a widower who himself had been a foundling. His new father had been given the surname Ives by a priest, who appropriated it from the signature to a popular print by the successful lithographic team of Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives. By onomastics and by talent, the adopted Ives is destined to be an artist, and before retiring in 1982 at the age of sixty, he spends most of his professional career as an illustrator with the Mannix Advertising Agency in Manhattan. He falls in love with a fellow art student, Annie MacGuire, and their durable marriage produces two children, Robert and Caroline. Mr. Ives develops a close friendship with Luis Ramirez, an ebullient waiter who had been a welterweight boxer in his native Cuba and who becomes his son’s godfather.
When The Mambo Kings Play Sings of Love won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1990, Hijuelos became the most prominent Hispanic novelist in the United States. In that very popular book and in his first, autobiographical novel, Our House in the Last World (1983), Hijuelos studied the lives of first- and second-generation Cubans transposed to New York. By his third novel, The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien (1993), Hijuelos, recounting the fortunes of a large family begotten by a mother from Cuba and a father from Ireland, was reaching beyond exclusively Hispanic themes.
Mr. Ives’ Christmas will disappoint readers who expect an author whose parents were born in Oriente Province to focus persistently and entirely on the Cuban American experience in the United States. Despite his English name, the swarthy Mr. Ives could pass for Hispanic or Italian or Jewish. He knows nothing of his ancestry and cannot assume that he has “genuine salsa” flowing through his veins. Yet he is a Hispanophile, and he and his wife choose to live in an apartment in an upper Manhattan neighborhood that is rich in various ethnic groups, particularly Hispanics. Attracted from childhood to the Cubans and Puerto Ricans of his native New York, Mr. Ives learns enough of the language to read El Diario and to be accepted as a paisano by the Spanish-speaking families on his block.
Although it is particularly devastating to learn that his son’s murderer is Puerto Rican, Mr. Ives resists the impulse to condemn all Hispanics. He is genuinely pleased when his daughter Caroline, back from Peace Corps service in Nepal, marries a Ramirez, Luis’ son Pablo (also known as Paul).
It is Paul Ramirez, a secondary character, who most closely approximates the profile of his author. Both were born in New York to Cuban parents and educated at City College, and both publish autobiographical first novels—in Paul’s case, a book called A History of Cuban Hippiness. Somewhat like Hijuelos’ first novel Our House in the Last World, it “chronicled the exploits of a troubled young Cuban-American during the midseventies and his travels around the United States as the bass player of a band called the Savages, its underlying theme a meditation on just what being a homegrown Cuban-American was all about.” Although Hijuelos...
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