Picks and Pans Review: The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'brien

updated 04/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Oscar Hijuelos

With The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, his Pulitzer-prizewinning second novel brimming with macho lust, Hijuelos in 1989 became the king of Cuban-American letters. In his third novel, Hijuelos, the Manhattan-born author, 41, tells a very different story about 14 daughters of a Cuban mother and an Irish father and their lone brother, Emilio—the baby of this intoxicatingly feminine brood—who becomes a movie star.

Set in small-town Pennsylvania beginning at the turn of the century and shilling in time, the book employs Garcia Marquez-like magical realism to chronicle the lives of the robust, close-knit Montez O'Brien family, in particular the last and first born: Emilio and his eldest sister, Margarita. Made up of moments that accrete in the course of nearly 500 pages, the saga reads like a painstakingly arranged family album shown to the reader picture by picture by an articulate, amused and passionate, if somewhat sex-addled, relation.

In a passage typical of the book's narrative voluptuousness, Hijuelos describes Emilio's young life among his (mostly) beautiful, bustling sisters: "From the time he was little, his sisters' love for him...whipped and breathed through every piece of linen and cloth; it had radiated...in the scent of their dresses, slips, and underdrawers which, hanging off laundry lines in the yard, were like the flags of a beautiful. luxurious nation."

What emerges powerfully here, but was lost in the music and inspired mayhem of Mambo Kings, is the notion that happiness comes to us only in brief, unexpected moments. These leave us, the author seems to feel, with internalized photos that even decades later we can look at, if we dare. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22)

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