Book Talk: *Beautiful Maria of My Soul*, by Oscar Hijuelos

Beautiful Maria of My Soul by Oscar HijuelosBeautiful Maria of My Soul

Oscar Hijuelos
Hyperion (2010), Hardcover (ISBN 1401323340 / 9781401323349)
Fiction, 352 pages
Source: ARC provided by the publisher via LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Reason for reading: Review, sequel to earlier novel
Opening Lines: “Over forty years before, when Nestor Castillo’s future love, one Maria Garcia y Cifuentes, left her beloved valle in the far west of Cuba, she could have gone to the provincial capital of Pinar del Rio, where her prospects for finding work might be as good – or bad – as any other place; but because the truck driver who’d picked her up one late morning, his gargoyle’s face hidden under the lowered brim of a lacquered cane hat, wasn’t going that way, and because she’d heard so many things – both wonderful and sad – about Havana, Maria decided to accompany him, that cab stinking like kingdom come from the animals in the back and from the thousands of hours he must have driven that truck with its loud diesel engine and its manure-stained floor without a proper cleaning.”
Book Description, via the publisher’s website:  The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is a contemporary American classic, a novel that still captures the imagination 20 years after its first publication. And now, in Beautiful Maria of My Soul, Oscar Hijuelos returns to the story, but tells it from the point of view of its heroine and inspiration, Maria.
She’s the great Cuban beauty, the woman who stole musician Nestor Castillo’s heart and broke it, inspiring him to write The Mambo Kings’ biggest hit, “Beautiful Maria of My Soul.” And here, she finally takes the spotlight.
Now in her 60s and living in Miami with her pediatrician daughter, Teresa, Maria is still a beauty, still capable of turning heads. But she has never forgotten Nestor, and as she thinks back to her days—and nights—in Havana, an entirely new perspective on The Mambo Kings story unfolds.

Comments: I read Oscar Hijuelos’ award-winning novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love nearly 20 years ago, when it was first published, and never gave much thought to its having a sequel. But when I learned that it had one – told from the perspective of the woman who inspired the fictional Castillo brothers’ best-known song, “Beautiful Maria of My Soul” – I remembered enough about the original novel to be interested. 
However, it seems that I’d forgotten quite a bit as well, particularly that the novel had a lot of sex in it – and that I’d found some of those scenes rather uncomfortable to read. That continues in Beautiful Maria…, but it bothered me differently this time. This review on  Powells.com, originally from The Oregonian, expresses my reaction pretty well:

“There are facets to Maria’s life that, if developed, might have made her a truly memorable heroine: her guilt over her sister’s death, her affection for the old man who teaches her to read, her ambiguous feelings for the abusive Ignacio, her longing to have a child — and her ensuing disappointment at her daughter’s plainness. Unfortunately, too often Hijuelos depicts Maria merely as an object of physical desire. Her relationships are explored mainly through numerous repetitive scenes of copulation. When men remember Maria, they can only recall moments of sex. More disappointingly, when Maria herself thinks about the men in her life — even Nestor — she values them only by how good they were in bed.”

Maria is a woman who seems to exist primarily under the male gaze; her most remarkable quality – not just to those male gazers, but to herself – is her physical beauty. Descriptions of her face, hair, and “traffic-stopping” body abound in the novel – and I’m not sure a woman would have written her that way. As the review quote mentions, there is more to her, though;  the sections of the novel that focus on other aspects of the character – her illiterate country upbringing, her drive to educate herself, her motherhood – were some of the parts I liked most, and I don’t think there were enough of them. There was more than enough about her looks, her desirability, and the sexual aspects of her relationships, though, including the skill and physical attributes of her lovers – and that all came across to me in a male voice, despite the fact that the protagonist is female.
As for the song-inspiring love between Maria and Nestor Castillo – my take on that is that theirs was a hormone-driven connection that they believed must therefore be a romantic one. Even in the midst of it, Maria realized they didn’t have a lot to talk about. Had they stayed together – that is, had she not refused him because she felt his ambitions were too narrow – biology dictates that the fires would have subsided eventually, and I’m not sure they’d have had much beyond that. 
Hijuelos’ writing is vivid and descriptive throughout, bringing mid-century, pre-Castro Cuba to life, and generously sprinkled with Spanish words and phrases; I just would have preferred less description of some aspects. My favorite part of the book was its final section, an amusingly meta twist in which the author becomes a character in his own novel when he writes the novel that first told Maria and Nestor’s story, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Up until then, I’d have called Beautiful Maria of My Soul my most disappointing read of the year; while it kept my attention, I didn’t always want it to. I think it would be of interest primarily to readers who recall the earlier novel, and would also appeal to fans of Latino-American literature for its depictions of pre-revolutionary Cuba and the Cuban-American exile community in Miami. I’m not sorry I read it, but I’m sorry I didn’t like it better.
Rating: 3/5

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