The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien
Oscar Hijuelos’ third novel is a wide-ranging chronicle of the lives, loves, struggles, and interrelationships of the fifteen children of an Irish man, Nelson O’Brien, and a Cuban woman, Mariela Montez, who have settled in a small town in Pennsylvania. The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien is presented in the form of an album of continuous memories, verbal photographs, and nostalgic images, clustered around major events in the lives of the family members. It is recounted in associative rather than chronological order, and it deliberately creates the effect of sorting through a century of family photographs, while a variety of voices comment on the images and recall their different versions of how events fitted together. Both Nelson and his only son, Emilio, are photographers, and emphasis is placed on both visual images and the importance of these pictures through time. The novel reflects on how these images, like the images of memory, represent and reconfigure past events.
The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien is told in third-person narrative, primarily from the perspective of Margarita, the book’s central and most fully explored character. Margarita is the first of the fourteen daughters of Nelson and Mariela, and it is her life span and her perceptions that define the story. The novel begins with
Margarita’s first romantic passion as she fantasizes about a young aviator whose Sopwith Camel has made a forced landing in a nearby hayfield, in 1921, and the story immediately folds back to the moment of her birth, on the ship that was bringing her parents from Cuba to the United States in 1902. When the novel concludes, Margarita is quite elderly and bedridden, and she recalls resigning from her last library job in 1994. Her dreams and memories fuse as she rereads her mother’s notebooks and floats “back like a moth through time,” recalling scenes from all the eras of her life, her parents’ memories as well as her own, and concluding finally with an image of her long-dead father in his own old age, holding his old-fashioned camera with its folding bellows-type canopy, as he focuses the lens on a springtime rose in a field. From beginning to end, the novel is a series of collages of roselike memories, sweet- smelling and heavy with petals of sentiment and nostalgia, like the letters Mariela receives from her beloved Cuba, “always scented with the tropics and the perfume of blossoms.”
Unlike Hijuelos’ first two novels, Our House in the Last World (1983) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989), which center on pain, loss, and cultural displacement following the central characters’ moves to the United States from Cuba, The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien is a sunny book, crammed with the largely successful life stories of Nelson, Mariela, and their fifteen children. Margarita, in her role as the eldest child, has known them all well. She inherits her mother’s notebooks filled with a lifetime’s poems and musings, visits both Cuba and Ireland to retrace her parents’ footsteps, and intermittently nurtures and listens to her fourteen siblings. Margarita’s awakening sexuality opens the novel, which closes with description of her extraordinarily vigorous old age, with its open and energetic sexuality, her last marriage at the age of ninety with all of her siblings present, and her thrill when she first pilots a plane at this advanced age: She is delighted that “late in life she seemed to be experiencing yet another moment of unexpected earthly pleasure.” Symbolically she has progressed from falling in love with a pilot who spurns her as the book opens to flying a plane herself as well as marrying its pilot-owner.
The fifth and last section of the book, “A Few Moments of Earthly Happiness,” weaves together the strands of the seventeen lives that have been described intermittently in the first four sections, in which their various life trajectories are discussed within clusters of memories that eventually fall into chronological sequence. In the last section, the family becomes more closely united after decades of pursuing separate careers and paths. The fifteen children of Nelson and Mariela all represent different forms of success and achievement. They are engaged in the musical world, in fashion modeling, in photography, in acting, in feeding the hungry, in marriages, and in parenting.
Like Our House in the Last World and The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien is a family saga that examines Cuban identity in exile. All three novels provide moving and vivid portrayals of immigrant family life. Nelson O’Brien comes from Ireland with his beloved sister Kate with the intention of settling permanently in Pennsylvania, and it is mere chance that Kate’s early death leads him to travel to Cuba as a photographer with the First New York Infantry Brigade during the Spanish-American War. When he returns to Pennsylvania years later with his Cuban bride, it seems a familiar place to him, but it is difficult for her to adapt to her new surroundings. Mariela’s insistent, continued Cubanness is portrayed in affectionate detail throughout the novel. Mariela’s few close friends share her Spanish language, and her kitchen is full of the aromas of green plaintains, black beans, suckling pig, and chicken stews. Her “absolute determination to remain Cuban in an all-American town” and her inability to learn English are accepted by her family as lovable eccentricities. Only the older children learn to speak Spanish well, but the others, including Emilio, make efforts to learn it later in life. As children all of them are steeped in their mother’s sentimental idealizations of Cuba and her memories of a tropical paradise- which contrasts...
(The entire section is 2401 words.)