Beautiful Maria of My Soul, by Oscar Hijuelos. Published 2010 by Hyperion. Literary Fiction
Beautiful Maria of My Soul is Oscar Hijuelos's follow-up and companion novel to the wonderful The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, his 1989 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about Nestor and Cesar Castillo, two musicians from Cuba who come to America to make a life. Beautiful Maria is partly Nestor's back story, the story of the woman and the love affair that inspired his most famous song, and part story of an independent woman trying to make it in pre-Castro Cuba and later, in post-Castro Miami.
First of all, I have to say Mambo Kings is one of my favorite all-time reads; I just loved it, and I was so excited to find out that Hijuelos was coming out with a new book set in the same universe. And Beautiful Maria is a wonderful way to return. Maria Garcia y Cifuentes comes to Havana from a small town in the countryside half by chance; poor but incredibly beautiful, she wants to find work, to make her way in the world. She becomes a dancer and her natural beauty makes her a hit. She attracts the attention of several men, most importantly petty gangster Ignacio and sweet musician Nestor; Ignacio takes care of her but it's Nestor who wins her heart. Their love affair is the high point of her life, but she only realizes this much later, after having tossed aside Nestor and his dreams of success as a musician for the security of life with Ignacio.
Beautiful Maria seems fluffier to me than Mambo Kings, but that doesn't mean it's not a terrific read. I think of it as a beach book for the litfic set, a fun and detailed character study of a flawed but wonderfully appealing woman and her world. I loved Maria's daughter Teresa, smart where her mother is beautiful, trying to make her own life in America. The coda, a too-cutesy, self-referential indulgence where Maria meets a writer named "Oscar Hijuelos" who's written a novel about Nestor, could have been left out, but leaving that aside I thoroughly enjoyed this charming, erotic romp. (If you don't like a lot of explicit sexual content, you might want to skip this one!) It's required reading if you enjoyed Mambo Kings; if not, give it a try if you're looking for something light and smart to while away the last days of summer.
And if you haven't read Mambo Kings, what are you waiting for?
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.