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.)