'Beautiful Maria of My Soul': Oscar Hijuelos plumbs the story of 'Mambo Kings' ' beloved Maria
A review of Oscar Hijuelos' new novel, "Beautiful Maria of My Soul," which tells the story of his Pulitzer-prize-winning novel "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love" in a different way; through the story of Maria, the Cuban woman pursued with such ardor by "Mambo Kings' " Nestor.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Beautiful Maria of My Soul'
by Oscar Hijuelos
Hyperion, 338 pp., $25.99
My favorite photo of my father shows him not long after his arrival in New York City from Puerto Rico, in the early 1950s. He sits, with a sly smile and slicked-back hair, at the Cuban Casino nightclub.
Oscar Hijuelos' "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1990, is partly set in the world of that photograph, during the glory days of Latin music. It not only addressed a very specific immigrant experience but also explored universal themes of longing and regret.
"Mambo Kings" tells the story of musicians Cesar and Nestor Castillo, brothers who come from Cuba to New York City in 1949. Macho ladies' man Cesar is ready to take on the world. Melancholy Nestor obsesses over the girl he left behind, for whom he can't stop writing numerous versions of the same love song: "Beautiful Maria of My Soul." Their zenith is a walk-on appearance on an episode of "I Love Lucy."
Hijuelos' latest takes the title of Nestor's song and brings to life his beloved Maria. Her story starts out in Cuba in 1947, as the teen leaves behind a rural childhood of crushing poverty and heartbreaking loss to seek a better life in Havana. The virginal (but not for long) Maria is illiterate but also breathtakingly beautiful and a natural-born dancer. She works her way to marquee act at a series of second-tier clubs.
Despite being a shady businessman's mistress, Maria hooks up with the sensitive, handsome Nestor. Their brief affair is tender and torrid. Hijuelos, as in "Mambo Kings," isn't shy describing their romps, and readers may learn a couple of words that weren't covered in Spanish 101. Whenever Nestor is around, the novel sizzles.
But the passive Maria is strangely uninteresting at first. Her most remarkable characteristic is her beauty. More compelling are secondary characters such as the elderly Lazaro, who offers to tutor Maria, who yearns to learn to read. It's the first inkling of the inner fire of the Maria who is to come. There are also glimmers of that future Maria in italicized asides that have snippets of the "late-afternoon mojito/margarita-fueled chats" Maria has with her pediatrician daughter, Teresita.
The real star of the early part of the novel is the pre-Castro Havana of lore. It was the kind of place where you could take in a Barbara Stanwyck movie; of cruise ships in the port; where Cuban and U.S. currency ruled. "... Havana, with its salt-eaten walls, was monumental ... that city of pillars, of winding alleys and cul-de-sac gardens and statuary ... burst with people and life."
After the revolution, Maria and toddler Teresita take the half-hour flight to Miami, where they start anew as exiles. Maria finally comes into her own, eventually opening a dance studio and taking poetry classes at a community college.
Even as she ages, men come and go in the life of the still beautiful Maria. But Nestor, the one she let get away, haunts her. It all comes full circle in the final section of the novel, "Oh Yes, That Book," a gimmicky yet ultimately charming grace note in which Maria takes control of her myth and proves worthy of a timeless love song.
Agnes Torres Al-Shibibi is an editor on the newsfeatures desk of The Seattle Times.
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