Themes and Meanings
The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien resumes Hijuelos’s project of divulging the sordid secret that all lives are defeated by the treachery of desire. He suffuses his third novel with the melancholy of futile longing. As a B-film actor, Emilio exploits the desires of those who gaze at his bright image in darkened theaters, but his first disastrous marriage occurs when Emilio himself succumbs to the wiles of an opportunistic fan—“once again he had allowed himself to be taken in by his own desire,” observes the narrator, explaining both Emilio’s seduction by Betsy MacFarland and a general law of the Hijuelos universe, where characters are forever longing and never achieving satisfaction for long.
The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien continues Hijuelos’s project of chronicling the experiences of Cuban immigrants in the United States. Cobbleton is not very hospitable to a Hispanic newcomer, and Mariela Montez is obliged to forfeit much of her native culture when she abandons Cuba and follows her new husband to Pennsylvania. The novel dramatizes the process by which her children assimilate to the dominant society, and it suggests a haunting sense of loss felt by both the immigrant generation and its offspring.
Half a dozen years later, Nelson warns his eldest daughter always to use English with him, “’cause in this country it’s been my observation that Spanish will be of little use to you, certainly useless to you as far as gainful employment and one day finding yourself a husband.” Though Margarita becomes a Spanish teacher and Isabel marries a Cuban pharmacist and moves to Santiago, the youngest of the siblings learn little or none of their mother’s mother tongue. Yet in the confluence of Yankee optimism and Latin fatalism, the sanguine blood does not win out. Publicly exuberant, Nelson takes to private tippling, as insulation against his chronic melancholy. Hijuelos’s theme, like that of much classic American fiction, is the revenge of the past on the self-assured man.