I don’t know how Oscar Hijuelos created a family of seventeen and made each member unique and memorable, but The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien is a masterpiece of both writing and food.
Nelson O’Brien is an enterprising Irish immigrant who travels to Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898, and there he meets his future wife, the sensitive, aristocratic, poetic Mariela Montez. As they are en route to America in 1902, their first daughter, Margarita is born at sea. The Montez O’Brien’s settle in a in a small Pennsylvania town, where Nelson practices his photography trade and runs the Jewel Box Movie Theatre, and Mariela gives birth to thirteen more daughters and then, finally, a son.
As Margarita looks back on her long and full life, the novel recounts the lives, loves and tragedies of the Montez O’Briens and their always complex relations with one another.
I spotted this book on my basement bookshelves tonight and realized I am very overdue to read it again. Quickly skimming through the pages, I wondered if there was something I could use for the Tuesday post, some good eats in the Montez O’Brien house. And then of course I remembered: Irene.
Better to consider the love of Irene, the seventh of the sisters, with her most elegant name. Cherubic, good-natured, and chubby as an infant and as an adolescent (how she loved it when the butler García would show up with those bags of plaintains that they could fry to crispiness in a large cast-iron pan), she had always been lavished with many sweets and foods and with sisterly affection. As she became a young woman, those beautiful features were swallowed by the moonlike roundness of her excessively fleshed-out face, and she lived for meals and was most happy to sit in her room eating one-cent sweets and spoonfuls of sugar or of honey, the idea of falling in love with a man never occurring to her except when she read magazines and would envy those young women whose boyfriends and husbands brought them chocolates. She would daydream about love, not so much for the sweet kisses and embraces of a man, or the roses that romance was said to bring, but for the boxes of dome-shaped, swirl-topped Belgian chocolates with maraschino-cherry centers, marzipan delights, chocolates with coconut centers, chocolates stuffed with citron and nuts.
Mouth watering yet? Anyway, at around age 20 Irene decides to find herself a man and to do this she goes on a diet, and understandably becomes quite unhappy. Her father tries to help by giving her a bicycle for the sake of exercise, but this has no effect other than to bulk up her already hefty legs. Then one day, out cycling, she collides head-on with a young man.
A young man as immense and porcine as herself, a fellow in a black top coat and schoolboy’s beanie cap, whose pockets, as it turned out, were stuffed with sugar cubes and candies…When they had lifted up their bent bikes, they sat for a time under a tree, more or less pleased by each other’s corpulence, as in this circumstance neither felt shame. His name was Pokapoulos, a Greek fellow, and he lived in a nearby town, and was the son of a butcher, and he, too, confessed that he loved to eat…
He started to visit with the family, always sidling in through the door and bringing parcels of meat with him, to her father’s delight – for Nelson O’Brien loved his steaks thick and juicy – and when he would stroll with her, or keep her company in the kitchen while she helped cook the evening’s meal, he was always attentive and complimentary to her. “My, but you look pretty tonight,” he would tell her, and, as in a fairy tale, made her feel so happy that she began to forget about the troubles of the world…
When he ate with the family, tasting her cookery, his eyes would water with delight and he would look on her with nothing less than complete adoration. And though it would be hard for any of the sisters to think that Irene and this fellow were acquainted with the romance of heated embraces, they, when alone, would engage in long bouts of succulent, tongue-swallowing kisses, tongues tasting of sweets and nut breads and steak, entwined and thick with the blood of appetite and the promise of an all-devouring consummation. That would take place after three years of mealtime conviviality, during a honeymoon which they would spend in a country inn near Lake George, a Swiss-style chalet known for its view of the Adirondacks and attendant waterway and for its quail-stuffed pastries and all-you-can-eat dessert buffet.