My fourth book was Our House in the Last World by Oscar Hijuelos.
This is Hijuelos' first novel (his second novel, "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," won a Pulitzer). This book, like many of his, focuses on a Cuban family in New York City. The Santinio's moved from Cuba to New York in the 1940s, and the story follows them through their life - first focusing on the mother and her pleasant childhood in Cuba, her romance with the father and their decision to move to America, and then the young lives of their two sons Horacio and Hector. It's a story about immigration, a story about family and a story about American culture in the 1950s. And, equally important, it's a story about longing for another life.
I think one of my favorite things about Hijuelos' writing is his ability to tell a story in a way that's both beautiful and terribly sad. A mother who longs for her life in the last world, constantly comparing what she no longer has to what she used to have. A younger son who's haunted by memories of a country and life he's never known. A hard-working father who struggles with juggling American life and familial responsibilities. An elder son who does everything he can to get away. The American dream put into perspective.
It's not a fast-moving book but a book that lingers with you. Words and scenes that stick with you and that you come back to a few days later. One of my favorite parts, toward the end:
"I did not turn out to be a bad man, and it was because Pop, deep down, really loved the family. If he had hated us I would have burned out. But we went beyond survival. He gave me something that was simple. I keep saying it, the ability to feel love. And having that makes it easy to give."
What I Liked
I like that Hijuelos so eloquently paints the picture of his characters. From chapter to chapter, character to character, you envision what everyone looks like. And you relate to them. Good people, not-so-good people. There's something about each one that you can appreciate.
What I Thought Could Have Been Better
This probably isn't really a reflection on Hijuelos so much as a reflection on my patience....it's a book that you can fairly easily put down and come back to like an old friend. Each time, it was just there waiting for me where I left off, and it didn't matter if two days or two weeks had passed. I could read five pages and suddenly decide I wanted to do something else, and sure enough, it would be there waiting right where I left off when I came back to it. Again, that's not really a bad thing. I just never felt a sense of urgency.
Life isn't always easy. Now, I'm sure that comes as the biggest understatement of all time. But, I think it's something we sometimes forget. Or we think things are harder than they really are. It's good to have a little perspective every once in a while.
And, in another complete genre switch, next up is The Last Single Woman in America.