Reviewed by Thelma T. Reyna, Ph.D.
Oscar Hijuelos, acclaimed Cuban-American author of eight books, wrote Beautiful Maria of My Soul (2010) as a prequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1986). In the prequel, Hijuelos gives readers the back story of the supremely beautiful woman who broke musician Nestor Castillo’s heart in The Mambo Kings. And what a back story it is!
The book covers 45 years, starting with Maria in Cuba at the age of 17 and ending with her in Miami, Florida, at the age of 62. In this span, we see the pre-Castro island nation in all its glory, beauty, and seediness. We learn about the decline of life for Cubans once Castro assumed power, and we follow Maria and her toddler daughter, Teresita, when they emigrate to America with hundreds of others and struggle to build a new life.
In this span, Hijuelos lays the seeds for his themes and slowly unwraps each one like gifts we anticipate but also dread: the fleeting nature and complexity of love, even true love; the losses and suffering that even the good endure; the seeming indifference and cruelty of God; the importance of memory in our lives; and the essential role of family.
Beautiful Maria Garcia y Sifuentes is a 17-year-old naïve, illiterate country girl living in extreme poverty in a tiny village in western Cuba. Her two brothers, teenaged sister, and beloved mother have one by one died untimely deaths, leaving her broken-hearted and alone with her sometimes-abusive, sometimes-tender father. In 1947, Maria decides that she must seek her independence and leaves the only world she’s ever known to travel to Havana, a bustling, frightening city filled with goodness, coarseness, and evil. She becomes a dancer in a rundown nightclub and alone must navigate the dangers and temptations of the city’s night life.
Her gift—extreme beauty of face and body that draws barrages of attention—is likewise a curse. She tires of men trying to seduce her, trying to impose their coarseness upon her, and wonders if it’s possible to find a good man who can love her for more than beauty. She appreciates her gifts, however, and uses them to advance her career, rising to be the featured dancer in the club and working as a model.
Virginal Maria eventually takes up with an older man, Ignacio, who has a shady reputation as a small-time gangster but who is generous with his attention and money and provides her with respectability and stability. Like her father, however, he sometimes beats and denigrates her; and Maria decides to leave him. During a violent argument with Ignacio, she meets Nestor Castillo, a poetic, soulful, handsome musician who rescues her from Ignacio’s rage. Nestor’s humility and saintliness, as well as his physical beauty, immediately appeal to Maria; and she and Nestor soon become lovers. Their passion is intense and endless, depicted by the author in highly graphic, explicit detail.
Nestor, for all his talents in and out of bed, is poor and simple. His gifts—besides the anatomical ones well-documented by Hijuelos—lie in his songwriting and his undying commitment to Maria. But Maria, accustomed to luxury after living with Ignacio, can only imagine a life of poverty if she marries Nestor, who proposes to her repeatedly, each time being rebuffed. Although enamored of Nestor sexually, she is not sure she truly loves him, plus her financial comfort trumps life with Nestor. She thus returns to Ignacio, and the broken-hearted Nestor eventually leaves with his older brother, Cesar Castillo, for New York to start a new life. (The Mambo Kings depicts the brothers’ lives from this point forward.)
Maria takes pride in her rise from poverty and learns to read and write. As the years pass, her father, her last surviving family member, dies. Maria feels the loss of this last link with family very deeply. She also misses Nestor and realizes that she made a mistake in rejecting him. He writes her wistful letters of undying love, and reminds her of a song he’s perfecting in her honor: “Beautiful Maria of My Soul.” Regarding Ignacio, she discovers several secret affairs. Each loss oozes a layer of hardness on Maria’s soul. Once devout, she now questions God and mocks him. She realizes that even love is “ephemeral and useless….like air.” The sweet, soft-hearted girl has become taciturn, critical, and jaded.
Maria comes to believe that having her own child will bring her happiness, and she wants Nestor to be the father. Although she learns that Nestor is now married and has two children, she believes Nestor still loves her, since he’s been writing letters to her since his departure to New York. She travels to New York to reunite with him and, hopefully, to be impregnated by him. Despite great qualms, Nestor agrees to meet Maria secretly and proceeds to ravage her like in old times. What happens after this secret reunion changes their lives forever and leads to great tragedy for both of them.
Hijuelos’ book is beautifully poetic in language and insights. He writes in a conversational style, filled with Cuban dialect, slang, and code-switching (alternating between English and Spanish), which makes his writing full of color and authenticity. Hijuelos creates memorable characters who are imperfect, who fill us with admiration and with revulsion. We can admire the tender-hearted Maria, but we can’t admire the young woman who chose money over love, or who, at the age of 50 and 60, is vain and largely unemotional. Nestor’s modesty as a young Cuban fills our hearts with respect, but his sexual foray as a married man shows his weakness. Still, these characters are human, and we can relate to them and learn from them.
Hijuelos has been criticized in the past for filling his books with too much sex, oftentimes in crude depictions. In this book, he can indeed be faulted for this. Although some sex scenes are described in evocative, literary language, the book could easily be reduced by dozens of pages with the elimination of redundant erotica that sometimes seems gratuitous. Hijueolos can also be faulted for his relentless repetition of “beautiful” throughout the book, and his descriptions of Maria’s beauty so oversaturated to the point of caricature. Again, this book could have been slimmer and still have been convincing.
No book is perfect. The importance of Beautiful Maria of My Soul is the author’s deft, unique treatment of how loss and unrequited love cut mercilessly into the human spirit; but also of how extremely humanizing family connectedness is, and how time and memories can mellow us out, if we remain open to possibilities, and we can find love in the most unexpected places. Hijuelos’ book expertly convinces us of this.
Thelma T. Reyna, Ph.D. is author of The Heavens Weep for Us and Other Stories (2009, Outskirts Press), which has won four national awards. Her short stories, poems, essays, book reviews, and other non-fiction have been published in literary and academic journals, literature textbooks, anthologies, blogs, and regional media off and on since the 1970’s. Her first poetry chapbook, Breath & Bone (Finishing Line Press, 2011) was a semi-finalist in a national poetry chapbook competition. Dr. Reyna is an adjunct professor at California State University, Los Angeles. Her website is www.ThelmaReyna.com.