6/2011 367pgs ARC
Thoughts Without Cigarettes is, as the author says, "told in so many parts--illness, sheltered messed-up childhood, death of father, subsequent struggles with identity and just surviving, my sometimes existence as a writer..."
Thoughts Without Cigarettes is like sitting down with an older relative, pulling out the photo album/scrapbook/netbook/picture place and having them tell you the history of each picture. Each story brings back memories of the occasion and sparks other memories that are somehow connected in the storytellers mind. Reading Thoughts Without Cigarettes is like strolling around the neighborhood, stopping to chitchat with neighbors, petting the animals, sort of ambling with a destination but no hurry to get there.
The prose, however rambling, is mostly beautiful. We meet Oscar Hijuelos father, Pascual, early on as he's trying to get his brother to come visit New York from Cuba. Uncle Oscar has a fatal accident for which Pascual forever after believes he caused and this sets the tone for the rest of his life, as well as that of the Hijuelo family.
"He'd wince with the realization that certain events cannot be undone, and, blaming himself for that tragedy, embarked upon a sea of regrets."
Another recurring aspect of the book is Oscar Hijuelos search for his "Cuban-ess". Hospitalized at the age of four with few visits from family, he forgot how to speak Spanish. This separated him from his family, both physically and culturally, and he would spend a large portion of his life "trying to become anything else but what I should have been, Oscar Hijuelos."
These two paths, his father's depression that becomes his own, and his struggle to reclaim his Latino heritage are the main points of this dense, sad read. The only uplifting portion of the book happens when Oscar Hijuelos travels to Rome, by way of Spain, for a fellowship.
"Rome...pressed so many wonderful buttons inside me that for much of my time there, I became a new and improved version of myself...really enjoying my life for a change."
It was a struggle to get through Thoughts Without Cigarettes due to Hijuelos tendency to get sidetracked. These extra details served to slow the re-telling down and we'd have to backtrack to unravel the original thoughts. Oscar Hijuelos takes those many episodes of his life and narrows them down to two sections - The Way Some Things Worked Out, his life from early childhood until the age of eighteen, and What Happened Afterward, his life as a grownup. We spend an inordinate amount of time in part one while Hijuelos sets up the illness that changed his life as well as his mother's consequent nagging of him and his dad. This left part two feeling rushed as he embarked on his writing life and subsequent Pulitzer Prize award. Although I enjoyed the book, I would have appreciated it more if I'd known it was going to be more about his relationship with father and if it had been a bit more straightforward.
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Thanks to Gotham Books and TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read this ARC.