The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien Summary
by Oscar Hijuelos

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The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The opening sentence of Hijuelos’s third novel proclaims that “the house in which the fourteen sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien lived radiated femininity.” That radiation is powerful enough to cause horses to throw their riders, cars to skid into ditches, and a plane to fall from the sky. Patriarch Nelson O’Brien senses himself condemned to solitude in his own crowded home, and his proficiency at generating daughters perplexes and perturbs him. He rejoices when his final, fifteenth, child turns out to be a son. For Emilio, surrounded and coddled by a mother and fourteen sisters, woman sets the standard—“What was ugly in life, he thought male.”

As a title, The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien is misleading. With an expansive, rhapsodic style, the novel does celebrate fecundity, but it does not give equal time or attention to all fourteen sisters. Emilio is not born until midway through the novel but is the object of as much narrative interest as any of the other O’Brien offspring. Though he begins with a chart listing all the O’Brien children and their years of birth, Hijuelos does not distribute his story equally among every member of the clan; the chronicle is partial to Margarita and Emilio. The first O’Brien child is old enough to be mother to the youngest, who as an infant is in fact suckled by his older sister. Margarita is a creature of exquisite, insatiable longing, through sexual and romantic trials that span the century. Emilio is an Olympic philanderer whose brush with vulgar glamor—he makes forty-two B-movies in five years during a meteoric Hollywood career—suffuses the story with melancholy over mutability. For the other O’Briens, a simple set of traits suffices: Helen is a beauty, Irene “ever-plump” and omnivorous, Veronica compassionate, Violeta “pleasure-bound and promiscuous.” Early films are a primal influence on the O’Brien children, whose father Nelson owns and operates Cobbleton’s Jewel Box Movie Theater. The entire family is in effect generated through still film; in Santiago, Cuba, in the summer of 1900, sixteen-year-old Mariela Montez is brought by her father to sit for a portrait in Nelson O’Brien’s photography studio. Mariela marries the handsome Irishman and moves with him to Pennsylvania. As an epigraph, the novel offers Nelson’s explanation of why, as late as 1937, he continues to use a shuttered, folding-bellows camera. The archaic instrument, he claims, most faithfully and effectively captures the sadness, joy, and worry of its subjects. The camera is an obvious analogy to Hijuelos’s own literary device for arresting the fleeting images of existence—the sadness, joy, and worry experienced by each of the O’Briens. The book is an old-fashioned collation of life studies, a patient record of moments from ten decades. Photography often provides its pretext for narration.

When, at various stages of their lives, Nelson, who continues with his camera work even after opening the Jewel Box, assembles his family for a group portrait, Hijuelos proceeds to tell the story behind the picture. After retiring as an actor, Emilio, following in his father’s line of work, becomes “photographer of the stars” in Los Angeles, and much of the rest of the story is generated by either the new prints that Emilio produces or the old ones that he ponders.


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien opens with a chart of those sisters and of Emilio in order of their dates of birth. Their story, though, begins with the migration to the United States of Nelson O’Brien, a young Irish photographer, and his sister Kate. When Kate dies of pneumonia soon after they settle in bucolic Cobbleton, Pennsylvania, a despondent Nelson goes off to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War. In Santiago, Cuba, he meets and marries Mariela Montez and begins the large and lively family whose experiences are the subject of Oscar Hijuelos ’s third novel. Concentrating on Margarita, the...

(The entire section is 1,401 words.)