Five years after he published his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Oscar Hijuelos penned Mr. Ives' Christmas, a tale full of tragedy and redemption. The story's obvious resemblance to A Christmas Carol is not coincidental — the author evokes Charles Dickens several times, just in case you fail to recognize the similarities between the two books — but Hijuelos takes a darker and more somber approach to the theme of illumination and redemption. Set in 1967, in the mean streets of New York, Mr. Ives' Christmas opens with the pivotal event: the murder of the 17-year-old son of Edward Ives, a former commercial artist, and his wife Annie, an English teacher. The boy, about to enter the seminary, is gunned down a few days before Christmas by a young Puerto Rican robber who makes off with all of $10. Unlike many contemporary novels, which resemble films in the way they use dialogue to move the story forward, Hijuelos exploits the greatest advantage that novels offer: the ability to escort the reader deep into the inner life of the characters. After much anguish and grief, Mr. Ives draws on his religious intuitions to emerge with a greater appreciation for family, beauty and intimacy, and a greater capacity for forgiveness.
A Christmas Carol has provided holiday uplift since it was published in 1843, with the story burrowing itself deep into our collective unconscious. Hijuelos puts a modern spin on the sentiments that have made Dickens' story a perennial favorite, allowing tragedy to challenge the human spirit in a way the Ghost of Christmas Past never could. But Hijuelos also displays respect for piety and for religion itself, allowing his protagonist to observe and admire the Jewish scholars he sees in the neighborhood, and the Turkish restaurant owner who interrupts his day to turn toward Mecca to pray, and the black congregationalists walking along Broadway on their way toward their church. "The faith of Edward Ives is not merely tolerant of others; it is generously accepting, a faith that views others truly as children of the same God," writes Anita Gandolfo in Faith and Fiction: Christian Literature in America Today.
Although Mr. Ives is not Hispanic, his dark complexion and his father's long association with Cuban colleagues create in him an affinity for Hispanic culture, and since flan constitutes such an exciting part of Cuban cuisine, it would seem to be the ideal accompaniment to a discussion of a book by an author whose most famous work revolves around two memorable Cuban-born musicians.
If you don't want to make your own, you might be able to find decent flan in a grocery store or bakery, or perhaps you can get one to go from your nearest Cuban restaurant.
Tom Valeo, special to the Times
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches popular book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions or would like to share what your book club is cooking up, send an e-mail to email@example.com. Put BOOK FOOD in the subject line.