“The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien” by Oscar Hijuelos

This book is the saga of a family, starting in the late 1800s in Ireland but taking place mostly in the United States. Nelson O’Brien left Ireland in 1896 and traveled to Cuba as a photographer in 1898 during the Spanish American War. In Cuba, he fell in love with and married Mariela Montez. They settled in Pennsylvania and raised a family of fourteen daughters and one son. O’Brien was a successful entrepreneur, keeping his family “comfortable” or at least approximately in the middle class.

The love between Nelson and Mariela never wavers. Their household is described as busy, noisy, happy and overwhelmingly female.

The main theme of this book is gender, or perhaps the female gender. O’Brien and his son live in a sea of femininity. Each seems alternately happy and baffled. The Montez O’Brien sisters follow many different paths – happy marriage, unhappy marriage, no marriage, teaching, performing, etc. The lone son worked as an actor and later became a photographer like his father. The son “discards” his Cuban heritage by acting under an anglicized stage name.

On the issue of gender, the Montez O’Brien family is tilted sharply towards the female, but other polarities are more even.

In appearance, some of the sisters are Irish, while others strongly resemble their Cuban mother. America is those years was prejudiced against both groups, but dark skin and curly hair were more unfavorably regarded.

The family was also “split” by language. Mariela never became comfortable speaking English, and mostly retreated to dignified silence outside the family. The older sisters were fluently bilingual, but the younger ones, raised more by their big sisters than their mother, never really learned Spanish, and hence were handicapped in understanding their mother and her family. Their efforts to learn Spanish later in life never seemed successful. One sister went to live in Cuba, but none lived in Ireland and few visited there.

This book is full of vivid, sensual images and emotions. The Pennsylvania house, in particular, is described so clearly I felt like I was living there.

Read this book if you like romantic fiction or family histories, or are interested in immigration and the sociology of America from 1900 to about 1960.

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