The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien Summary

Oscar Hijuelos

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...

(The entire section is 556 words.)

The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien Summary

(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 eldest, born in 1902, and Emilio, the youngest, born in 1925, the book traces the experiences of the O’Briens throughout most of the twentieth century.

As the opening sentence proclaims, “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; Hijuelos endows his gynocratic household with Magical Realism. One of the sisters, Patricia, is even explicitly clairvoyant, adept at divining the fates of her many siblings; however, recognizing a rival to his narrative authority, Hijuelos relegates Patricia to a minor role and characterizes her as reluctant to indulge in prophecy.

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 at last to be a son. For Emilio, surrounded and coddled by a mother and fourteen sisters, woman sets the standard.

Emilio is not born until the middle of the novel, and the focus of the first third of the book is on Margarita and her largely erotic longings. Her adolescent fantasies focus on a barnstorming pilot whose plane becomes disabled near the O’Brien house. Margarita’s marriage to the wealthy Lester Thompson proves to be a disaster and, after...

(The entire section is 845 words.)