Hijuelos adorns his 'Fourteen Sisters' in vivid, eloquent description

March 14, 1993|By Anne Whitehouse



Oscar Hijuelos.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

484 pages. $22. Oscar Hijuelos' last novel, "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," told the story of two Cuban brothers whose dreams of musical fame end in failure, and whose single moment of glory is an appearance with Desi Arnaz on the "I Love Lucy" television show. Despite its tragic outcome, "Mambo Kings" -- which won )) the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 -- is nonetheless an exuberant and uninhibited book, sprawling, lavish and sentimental in a heart-tugging way.

Like its predecessor, "The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien" is about an immigrant family. In this case, it's the Irishman Nelson O'Brien and his Cuban wife, Mariela Montez, who settle in rural Cobbleton, Pa., around the turn of the century and raise 15 children -- 14 daughters and, finally, a son. While tragedy is also present in this novel, it takes a minor role.

Nevertheless, readers will find similarities between this book and "Mambo Kings." Again there's an emphasis on sensuality and a vision of family life as ultimately nurturing and consoling. While "Mambo Kings" derives much of its strength from a sympathetic yet honest portrayal of Latino machismo and its attendant delusions, here female sexuality -- in the persons of the 14 sisters and their fertile mother -- takes center stage.

However, it's female sexuality as perceived by the male other. The overwhelming feminine presence of the Montez O'Brien household is seen as alluring and entrapping on a mythical scale. In the first chapter, for example, an experienced aviator inexplicably loses control of his aircraft as he is flying over the Montez O'Brien home and crashes in a nearby field, drawn unconsciously by the sisters' cumulative and powerful femininity. This power, however, does not necessarily benefit those who possess it. Margarita, the eldest sister and the character whom Mr. Hijuelos most fully develops, falls in love with the aviator, but his attraction to her is abstract and hence meaningless. He is engaged to someone else.

The aviator episode, with its charm, humor and studied naturalism, could be a scene from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, and in fact Mr. Hijuelos uses a number of stylistic and thematic devices that are reminiscent of the famous Colombian author. There's his fertile and baroque imagination that led to his conceiving of a narrative featuring 14 sisters, and his tendency both to telescope and foreshorten the passage of time in order to stress the workings of destiny and the possibilities of clairvoyance. Like Mr. Garcia Marquez, Mr. Hijuelos favors long sentences, Homeric repetitions and attributes, and sensuous and sensual imagery.

Yet despite all the vibrant life that Mr. Hijuelos describes, the novel never succeeds in finding a center. In "Mambo Kings," the "I Love Lucy" episode, which Mr. Hijuelos turns to again and again, functions as a source of hope and regret, suggesting what the two brothers, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, aspired to, and what they lost. Numerous show-business celebrities appear in "The Fourteen Sisters" -- Buster Keaton, Errol Flynn, Noel Coward and Joel McCrea, to name a few -- but these are cameo parts that never develop a radiant, talismanic appeal, as Desi Arnaz does in "Mambo Kings."

A fatal hotel fire in "The Fourteen Sisters" causes Emilio in his despair to turn to drink as he seeks oblivion, much as Nestor's death in an auto accident affected Cesar in "Mambo Kings." Nestor's death is the chasm that divides "Mambo Kings," whereas the deaths resulting from the fire in "The Fourteen Sisters" are the grimmest event in a novel packed with incident. The fate of Emilio does not determine the course of the narrative, as Cesar's did in the previous novel.

In fact, it may be that the sheer number of characters and the constant accumulation of event and detail, while evidence of Mr. Hijuelos' inventive gifts, ultimately weaken "The Fourteen Sisters," as they tend to dilute and distract a reader's attention. Not all the sisters are developed as characters; most are sketchily portrayed. The novel belongs primarily to Margarita, and she is sympathetic and compelling as we follow her progression from youth to extreme old age. Emilio; the youngest sister, Gloria; the singing sister, Maria, and the parents, Nelson and Mariela, are also vivid and memorable characters.

Mr. Hijuelos' writing can be breathtakingly beautiful, as in this description of Nelson O'Brien before the fireplace, "watching the embers (clustered, feathery, snowy-gray, and crumbling like wings) of the birch and elm logs dim and glow, as if they were softly breathing, his shadow grown immense and wavery against the walls behind him, his mind moving through clouds of manly pensiveness, and muttering to himself about the passage of time and the world amounting to as much as those ashes. . . ."

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