Wednesday, August 11, 2010

REVIEW: Beautiful Maria of My Soul, by Oscar Hijuelos

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?

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

12 comments:

Paperback Reader said...

What AM I waiting for, indeed? I've really been wanting to read Mambo Kings recently, after it had seemed to escape my notice until this year.

Have you read Mr Ives' Christmas?

Mystica said...

Havent read either so thank you for highlighting.

S. Krishna said...

Beach book for the litfic set - love that description!

Zibilee said...

I haven't ever read Mambo Kings, but you make it sound like I should! I am glad you enjoyed this second book so much and that it was a great read for you. You have inspired me to want to try Hijuelos' writing! Great review!

JoAnn said...

It's definitely time for me to read Mambo Kings!!

Florinda said...

Oh, I'm so glad you liked this one! I got a pre-pub copy through LibraryThing Early Reviewers - which of course I haven't read yet, but anyway... The Mambo Kings was an unforgettable novel.

Kathleen said...

I've not read the The Mambo Kings but you are making me want to. This book sounds like one you could read before or after The Mambo Kings. It's always nice to love a book so much and then have the author continue the story with another novel, isn't it?

bermudaonion said...

It sounds like I need to read Mambo Kings instead of this one!

jewwishes said...

Great review, Marie! I have this on my TBR stack.

Andi said...

It's never even crossed my mind to read Mambo Kings. Given the title I think I was misled into thinking it might be fluff, but it sounds like a good read, as does the follow-up.

wisteria said...

Ok, ok...on my list. Thanks for the awesome review and recommendations. They are going on my indie wishlist. :)

Marie said...

Paperback Reader, no, I haven't, but I'll check it out.

Florinda, you'll enjoy Beautiful Maria :-)

Everyone else, yes, this review did sound more like an endorsement for Mambo Kings than BMoMS, but they're both great books. MKPSoL is an all-time fave but this is terrific too.