Mr Ives's Christmas, Oscar Hijuelos, HarperCollins, 1995, 248 pp
Oscar Hijuelos' third novel began a bit slowly but in some way I have yet to figure out, took hold of me with a gradually tightening grip and left me gasping for relief at the end. The writing is deceptive. It seemed almost simple, almost pedestrian, until I found myself embedded in the hearts and minds of Mr Ives and his wife.
The couple, Mr Ives of Cuban descent and Mrs Ives of Irish, are bound together by passion, intellect, and faith. Content to remain living in a multicultural neighborhood in Upper Manhattan which has seen better days, they are raising two children and are deeply involved in their church and community when disaster strikes. Robert, their son, who is days from entering the seminary, is killed during an incident of senseless violence by a neighborhood punk. Every good thing in their lives, especially their love for each other and their faith in God, is tested.
The impact of a child's death on a marriage and family has been depicted many times in fiction. Hijuelos makes the story new again, mostly due to his two main characters. In an almost bland third person voice he brings the reader so close to Mr Ives and his lovely, vibrant wife Annie, he dives so intricately into the minute personal differences between them as they deal with grief, with religious belief, with life itself, that the novel tested my own faith in love, in mankind, in a Supreme Being, and in life itself.
I don't know if the amount of emotional turmoil in Mr Ives' Christmas is every reader's cup of tea. I didn't think I would be able to stomach the overtly Catholic views. But then again, I have been drawn in by Graham Greene, especially The Power and the Glory. As I watched the movie version of The Life of Pi on Christmas Eve, I remembered that part of my love for that book was Pi's seriously held and seriously tested faith in the three religions he practiced simultaneously.
Oscar Hijuelos did not turn me back to the Christian faith of my youth. He performed another kind of miracle and renewed my faith in living by one's values and in the divine nature of human love.
(Mr Ives's Christmas is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)