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BOOK REVIEW / Lost in lingerie land: The fourteen sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien by Oscar Hijuelos

OSCAR HIJUELOS's The Mambo Kings Play Songs Of Love cast a potent spell over weary intellectuals. The story of a Cuban dance band in New York during the 1950s, its enchantment lay in Hijuelos's paeans to heterosexual lust and happy physical abandon. The characters ate huge meals of steak, chops and chorizos smothered in oil, garlic, lemon and salt. They chainsmoked Chesterfields and knocked back rivers of whiskey. They slid around smoke-filled rooms, locked in the sexy embraces of the rumba beat.

Central to this seductive vision was Hijuelos's ability to conjure up the women of the time; they pirouette through the book in ruffled, polka-dot skirts, tight bodices, gleaming black seamed nylons and stiletto heels. They flutter their eyelashes, they sweat, they wear flame-coloured panties. The novel is a hymn to sensual passion and women's underwear, 'frilly panties, bursting girdles, camisoles, slips, gartered nylons' - the world we have lost. Though the central figure eventually dies in old age of his excesses, he can look back on a glorious physicality and lust for life, so different from our own regimented sexual politics and dismal health-consciousness.

The publication of Hijuelos's massive new novel throws some of the impulses behind all this into clearer relief. The book is an up-market family saga which follows the fortunes of the O'Brien family of Pennsylvania. Nelson O'Brien is an Irish immigrant, inclined, like so many of Hijuelos's male characters, to mild alcoholism and depression. His wife is the Cuban-born Mariela Montez, devout, perpetually pregnant, the writer of twee and supposedly touching poetry. Between 1902 and 1925 they have 15 children, the last-born the only male, Emilio, who grows up to be an alcoholic, depressive B-movie actor.

The novel exists to revel voluptuously in what Hijuelos continually calls 'the female influence'. The O'Brien house, with its dynamic female sexuality, is so magnetic that men run their cars off the road and bring their planes down nearby. Emilio grows up in a pollen cloud of budding femininity and imagines 'dresses and ribbon-brimmed hats, slips and step-ins, brassieres and stockings rising up and wrapping themselves around him'. This female influence is linked to the power of Aphrodite and Demeter, and also, in Hijuelos's mind, to his own maternal Cuban ancestry. The sisters feel that 'the notion of Cuba, like their own femininity, exerted a powerful pull'. The surging power of female frippery is contrasted with a masculinity that's rendered in unintentionally bathetic terms - Hijuelos speaks of 'valiant masculinity' and describes Nelson O'Brien's mind as 'moving through clouds of manly pensiveness'.

Hijuelos weaves another magical literary spell in his evocation of a loving, Edenic childhood. The girls eat sugar and honey, go skating, attend pie-eating contests and county fairs, flirt and fall in love. The whole effect is that of a rather more robust Louisa May Alcott or Susan Coolidge - What Katy Did In Bed, perhaps.

It is customary to express reverence for these gargantuan Latin American family-fixated novels. Certainly they tend to be well written - no one can doubt Hijuelos's lavish talent - and their exoticism restrains the critics. But are they really so much more worthy than, say, Mazo de la Roche's old 'Jalna' books, or The Forsyte Saga? Hijuelos marshals such a huge cast of characters (15 children, 18 nephews and nieces and 31 grandchildren) that, inevitably, many of them remain indistinct. No one in the book is really venal, corrupt or less than well-meaning. The result is like being strangled by clouds - by 'lacy undergarments' and petals of femininity.

Hijuelos writes very well about sex but one is aware of some crux of mystic fetishism and idealised maternity behind his flamboyant literary transvestism. Tellingly, romance always involves a lengthy suckling of breasts. Emilio has a spiritual epiphany while looking at a Virgin and Child fresco and wishes he could 'pass into the corridors of perpetual love'. The novel's ultimate impression is of an unstoppable, self-indulgent textual fecundity, delightful in many ways but ultimately self- absorbed and with a creamy hormonal vision at its heart. Indeed, the author continues to wrestle with frilly underthings and rosy bottoms until his female characters are well into their nineties.