Oscar Hijuelos’ Mr. Ives’ Christmas is not just a good novel. It is a meditation on grief. It is also a meditation on faith and weathering the worst of storms a human being can weather. The loss of a beloved child.
And the book is also about commitment, love, family and friends with a little Charles Dickens thrown in. And everywhere there is Hijuelos’ love affair with New York City, its sights and sounds and smells, and its neighborhoods.
A good man, Edward Ives, loses his son, Robert, to a cold blooded murder. Robert is standing in front of a church, talking to some friends. He’s there for choir practice.
A thirteen-year-old kid walks by Robert. He doesn’t like the look on Robert’s face. In an instant, he turns, pulls a gun, and fires bullets into Robert’s body. Robert drops onto the sidewalk. He is dead.
Robert wasn’t just any kid. He was special. He was one of those kids who did everything right. Likeable to everybody he met. Never an unkind word for anybody. Never gave his parents trouble. Close to both of his parents and his sister. But especially close to his father. The next year he was going to go off to seminary to become a priest. That was Robert. And it doesn’t help that his death came close to Christmas.
Annie, his mother, and Caroline, his sister, are devastated. But his father is the most devastated of all. At one point, Ives reflects: “You know what it was like? It was like drowning.” Ive’s grief is a river of sadness, so sad it fills his entire life. As his wife, Annie, puts it, “Robert’s death had become the defining event of his middle-aged life.”
Ives never stops grieving. Annie and Caroline find a way to go on with their lives and live with the grief without it destroying them. But not Ives. He cannot find any joy in life anymore. It’s almost like he quit breathing at the moment he heard the horrible news.
On the outside, his acts are of a saintly man, a compassionate man, showing care for those around him. Even for the murderer of his son. On the inside, he is wounded deeply, walking around in a purgatory that is as much hell as it is life. A purgatory he cannot escape no matter how good he is. His only thought day after day, night after night, is the loss of his son. His grief is immense.
This is not a novel written from the head. This is a novel written from the heart. With detail upon detail, Oscar Hijuelos has mustered all his tremendous talent to breathe life into the Mr. Ives of the title. In so doing, it’s possible to believe that Hijuelos suffers with Mr. Ives.
Ives with his memories of his beloved son finds himself in a lifetime of solitary confinement which he cannot escape. He cannot bring himself to love again, even his wife and his daughter.
Not once does he ask, “What would Robert want?”
So Mr. Ives grows into a bitter man despite everything he tries.
On that day the kid murdered Robert, he had a second victim. Mr. Ives. Robert’s death was instant. Edward Ives’ is long and slow and torturous. Mr. Ives is a good man, but goodness is not enough to heal all the grief that he carries.
In the end, Mr. Ives emerges from a long dark night. For Mr. Ives, the sunrise comes from a place he least expected.
At the end, I realized that this is Osar Hijuelos homage to the great Charles Dickens. It seems like Dickens is hovering above every page of this novel, encouraging Hijuelos to write on and smiling when the writer had completed the journey of his story. As I finished the novel, I began to think that Edward Ives had a lot of Bob Cratchit in him.
In 248 pages, Hijuelos has packed the life of one man and his family, his faith and his love affair with life, and then the great tragedy. When the novel is over, I was left with a love for Ives and Annie, Robert and Caroline, Ramirez and Carmen and their son Pablo. I will miss them. But Hijuelos has left me the opportunity to dig into their lives again. All I have to do is open the pages of Mr. Ives’ Christmas.