three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
48-Sept-Oct-2010
user_rating: 
0

A-Beautiful Maria of My SoulThe son of Cuban immigrants, Oscar Hijuelos was the first Hispanic American to win the Pulitzer Prize (for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love in 1990). Beautiful Maria of My Soul reexamines the celebrated story of brothers Nestor and Cesar Castillo, originally recounted in Mambo Kings, through the eyes of Nestor’s long-lost love, Maria. A warning: some critics reveal "a daring and playful move near the end" of the novel. Though not vital to the story, it was interesting for the discussion, so we felt comfortable including it. If you wish to remain completely surprised, do not read any of the critics’ quotations and our summary.

The Story: In 1947, 18-year-old Maria Garcia y Cifuentes flees her poverty-stricken rural home for opulent, glamorous Havana. Illiterate and unsophisticated, she nevertheless parlays her stunning beauty and natural grace into a dancing job at a nightclub. There, she becomes the mistress of a hot-tempered gangster, Ignacio, who bullies her but also bankrolls her glitzy new lifestyle. One day, she meets a handsome, penniless musician, Nestor Castillo (the future Mambo King), and the two fall passionately in love. But when Nestor leaves with his brother Cesar for New York City, Maria makes a decision that will haunt her for the rest of her life.
Hyperion. 352 pages. $25.99. ISBN: 9781401323349

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"While his new book doesn’t quite scale the dizzying heights of its predecessor, it comes awfully close. ... And, in the novel’s bold ending, Hijuelos seamlessly welds fact and fiction, with the author himself making an appearance to discuss his books with the characters that inhabit them." Scott Stephens

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"It does nothing to undermine the warm, exuberant triumph that Oscar Hijuelos has achieved in his much-anticipated new novel, Beautiful Maria of My Soul, to say that it is a kind of pentimento on his hugely successful 1989 book, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. ... It takes a certain amount of nerve to revisit a novel so successful and compelling, but Hijuelos has nerves of steel and the skill to back them up." Timothy Rutten

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Unfortunately, too often Hijuelos depicts Maria merely as an object of physical desire. ... Apart from this shortcoming, Beautiful Maria is a finely written novel, a nuanced and poignant meditation on the life of a woman who is, perhaps, too lovely for her own good." Chitra Divakaruni

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The passive Maria is strangely uninteresting at first. Her most remarkable characteristic is her beauty. ... The real star of the early part of the novel is the pre-Castro Havana of lore." Agnes Torres Al-Shibibi

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"There are only so many times we can hear that [Maria] turns heads and weakens knees before even such potentially engaging material grows tired. ... Nevertheless, the book lifts toward the end, with the fascinating intrusion of a character by the name of Oscar Hijuelos, who happens to have written a successful book called The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love." Carolina De Robertis

USA Today 3 of 5 Stars
"Despite her looks and sexual talents, Maria isn’t an interesting enough character to sustain a novel. But Hijuelos rescues the story with a daring and playful move near the end." Bob Minzesheimer

Miami Herald 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Though hampered by weaknesses, Beautiful Maria of My Soul deserves attention for its vibrant and colorful depiction of a lost age. ... But in revisiting this material for Beautiful Maria, Hijuelos has sacrificed something. The emotional oomph is gone." Ariel Gonzalez

Critical Summary

Though Beautiful Maria of My Soul may not match the emotional depth of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, critics generally considered Hijuelos’s new novel a success. A seasoned storyteller, Hijuelos vividly evokes the vibrant lost world of prerevolutionary Havana, the Cuban Revolution, and modern-day Miami, and he audaciously inserts himself into the narrative’s contemporary scenes to bring the story full circle--a device commended by the critics. However, Maria, defined by her appearance, fails to develop into a full-fledged character, and Hijuelos’s relentless reminders of her extraordinary beauty and her effect on men grow tedious. Some readers may also object to the book’s robust sexuality. Despite these complaints, Beautiful Maria of My Soul is a welcome expansion on the much-loved The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, as well as a finely written novel in its own right.

Also by the Author

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989): In 1950s New York City, Cuban brothers Cesar and Nestor Castillo seek fame and fortune as musicians at the height of America’s mambo craze.