Ah, stories, our true summer loves. We read some stories in order to live for a while alongside remarkable people during significant times, relishing how these tales unfold in admirably crafted prose.
Other stories we read lying on a towel to pass the time waiting for the sun to tan our hides. Oscar Hijuelos' new novel, Beautiful Maria of My Soul, wavers somewhere between these poles, alternately a literary novel that animates the salad days of pre-Castro Havana and a beach read packed with enough fevered couplings to keep the pages turning.
A follow-up to The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, which garnered the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1990 and became the basis for a movie starring Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas as the musical Castillo brothers, this novel gives us the life of Maria Rivera, the ravishing nightclub dancer who inspired the eponymous song that made the Castillo brothers famous in the earlier novel.
Set against a vibrant, desperate city, the book aspires to represent Cuba in the beautiful and flawed Maria. But don't put too much stock in this—the weight of Cuban history would break this tale, and its occasional appearances are more obligations than moments of enlightenment or commentary. Beautiful Maria of My Soul is simply the story of its main character as she struggles to find love, happiness and, ultimately, herself.
We meet the lovely Maria at 17 in the cab of a hog farmer's truck on its way from her family farm to the big city. She is as spectacularly beautiful as she is impoverished of money and education—but not tragedy. Already having buried her mother and sister, and survived a shiftless drunkard (and occasionally violent yet kindly) father, Maria just wants to go somewhere, anywhere. But as she tries to remain pious and innocent in a city otherwise populated entirely by criminals and prostitutes, she soon begins to reminisce about her humble home, which she idealizes over the course of the book.
Trading on her fabulous looks, Maria soon finds work as a dancer in nightclub revues, her innocence eroding and renown increasing with each gyrating performance. And so, lovers enter her life. She becomes the possession of a gangster named Ignacio, who later ages into an OK kind of guy, even fathering Maria's daughter Teresita. But the great love of Maria's life is the hapless street musician Nestor Castillo, the younger of the Castillo brothers, whose melancholy nature inspires passions both religious and sexual in Maria.
Maria is beautiful, by the way—has that been mentioned already? "She could rarely go down the street without someone calling out or whistling at her, many a devouring stare attending Maria's every step." Hijuelos leaves hardly a page free of a mention of Maria's physical gifts. At times his hyperbole reaches the divine: "Maria could have been wearing a crown of thorns and dragging a cross behind her and she still would have attracted amorous attention." If the reiterations of Maria's uncanny beauty do not wear your patience, the as-frequent descriptions of Nestor's generous pinga will. (And if your Spanish is rusty, let's just say that Nestor is as well endowed as Duke University, where Hijuelos now teaches.)
That said, Hijuelos has good chops. He delivers his most transporting prose in descriptions of the fecund countryside of Maria's youth, and especially of the charm and squalor of Havana in Batista's final years. This is a "city of both torments and love," with "the smell of blood and flowers" wafting through alleys in which rumbas spontaneously arise and marketplaces fill with eccentrics. You might wish you could ditch the main characters and stroll around the city on your own for a while.
Like so many Cuban stories, this one ends in the United States, and in the end, Maria's story is a rich one. An ordinary woman placed in an extraordinary body, she is forced at all moments to deal with the fact that she is an object of male desire. She becomes that object, which is uncomfortable to witness, but gradually she transforms again into a woman of her own making.
Less forgivable is Hijuelos' inclusion of himself as a significant character in the final section of the novel. Far from a clever postmodern turn, the idea of Maria and Teresita attending a Hijuelos reading and the opening of the movie The Mambo Kings reads at best as a muddy way to end a novel and at worst as an author wanting to take a star turn if this book becomes a movie.
And will this become a movie? Well, the chapters, often only a few pages long, will be easy breadcrumbs for a screenwriter to follow in order to bring Maria's story to the big screen. Let's see, is Talisa Soto available? Or Salma Hayek? Can we put them in a time machine?