Mr. Ives’ Christmas (Book Review)

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There is rarely apathy when it comes to Christmas. People tend to either love the season–soaking up all that comes with it–or dread it for its painful reminders of broken families and other assorted pains. This tension was clearly understood by Oscar Hijuelos, a recently-deceased, under-sung author profiled in a recent New York Times feature. The piece specifically looks at  a novel that Hijuelos wrote almost 20 years ago. The book, Mr. Ives Christmas, is about a man whose life rotates around the axis of Christmas, in both its tremendous joys and immense sorrows. It is a novel unique in its depiction of the power of Christian faith, specifically as it pertains to the Advent season.

Mr. Ives Christmas tells the story of Edward Ives, who was orphaned as a child and adopted by a religious man. Ives so loved and revered his adoptive father that he wanted nothing more than to follow in his footsteps as a believer in Christ. This manifested itself most powerfully every year at Christmas time. As a baby left on a doorstep himself, Ives felt powerfully the idea of a small, helpless baby coming into this world with plans to save it.

He also loved nothing more than attending mass in the great cathedrals of New York City as a boy, experiencing the power of the holiday:

“Enflamed by the sacred music and soft chanting, his heart lifted out of his body and winged its way through the heavens of the church. Supernatural presences, invisible to the world, seemed thick in that place, as if between the image of Christ who is newly born and the image of the Christ who would die on the cross and resurrected, return as the light of this world, there flowed a powerful, mystical energy.”

The novel is told entirely in brief, non-chronological vignettes, so the reader learns in the first pages that Christmas did not remain a joyful season for Ives. Ives eventually marries and has two children. The eldest, a son named Robert, informs his father while in his teens that he wants to join the priesthood. Ives is inspired by his son’s goodness and generosity, but is devastated when, on the way home from choir practice one December, his son is gunned down and murdered by a 14-year old boy from the neighborhood.

Hijuelos describes Ives suffering early on in the novel:

“But as the years passed, nearly thirty of them, with their thousands of days and hundreds of thousands of hours, [Ives] still could not get a certain image out of his head: his righteous and good son, stretched out on the sidewalk, eyes glazed and looking upward, suddenly aware and saddened that his physical life was ending.”

The rest of this beautiful, moving novel tells Ives’ life story, indiscriminately jumping around from childhood to young adulthood and retirement. He is a man who wants nothing more than to be godly, but who struggles greatly to find faith amidst tragedy. The novel’s prose is reserved and simple, adding incredible weight to some of the more emotional scenes that would have digressed into schmaltz were the language not so controlled.

It is the rare contemporary American novel that describes a religious man and his beliefs with respect and thoughtfulness, while giving an honest account of how difficult beliefs can be to hold, especially amidst so much pain. We follow Ives through the ups and downs of his marriage, his friendships, his work as a creative director at a Madison Avenue ad agency, and most powerfully, his attempts to engage with, and potentially even forgive, the man who murdered his son. The end of this novel is so full of truth and grace that I felt my hands trembling as I read the final pages.

But back to Christmas. Perhaps some don’t even have to imagine what Ives endures–a lifelong love of the season, terribly marred by an unexpected tragedy. Those who feel this way can no doubt sympathize with Ives’ experience: “The holidays would come and the past would hit Ives like a chill wind. Memories of his son plaguing him, there came many a day around Christmas, when Ives would plaintively wait for a sign that his son, who’d deserved so much more than what he had been given, was somewhere safe and beloved by God. Each day he awaited a slick of light to enter the darkness.”

Ives eventually reaches a point that I believe every single believer reaches in their journey of faith, when pain transitions violently to anger and then doubt. “[Ives’] faith seemed nothing more than a construct, that he had merely learned to mimic the spirit and mannerisms of his truly devout father, that deep down inside he was nothing more than a fake, an actor, a sense of worthlessness coming over his foundling soul.”

And yet, in the end, it is Christmas, and the soul-stirring story of Christ’s great love and willingness to come to earth, that gives Mr. Ives the ability to cope, and even thrive, in spite of life’s circumstances. This book, if nothing else, works to inspire those of us for whom the Christmas season is more full of sorrow than joy.

Mr. Ives sits in church at Christmas towards the end of his life and “The slightest breeze from the church’s opened doors…made Ives’ little heart jump: at any moment, Jesus would be coming out of his resting place and the world would be filled with miracles. He would be dressed in great flowing white robes, a beautiful light filling the church. With pained but transcendent eyes, bearded and regal, he would come down the central aisle towards Ives, and placing His wounded hands upon Ives’ brow, give his blessing before taking him away into His heaven.”

Whatever theological shortcomings might arise throughout the novel’s nimble 250 pages, the thing that cannot be missed is Hijuelos’ acute understanding of the power that Christmas has to change us. Of course there are the modern sentimentalities that so many find joy in (carols, trees, lights, church buildings, etc…), but even more fundamental is the way in which we are freshly confronted by the gospel–the incredible truth that God himself arrived on this planet in a manner so unexpected and beautiful that it has the ability to alter us 2,000 years later.

This Christmas let us, like Ives, be honest with ourselves about our doubt and pain, but let us also embrace the uncontainable joy of the season. Savor the good news that Jesus Christ loved us so much that he left his Father’s side in order to win for us the Father’s embrace. May this news transpose our weeping into singing and distill our tears into joy.