Beautiful Maria of My Soul

Beautiful Maria of My Soul

3.5 11
by Oscar Hijuelos

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The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is a Pulitzer Prize-winning contemporary American classic, a book that still captivates and inspires readers twenty years after its first publication. Now, in Beautiful Maria of My Soul, Oscar Hijuelos returns to this indelible story, to tell it from the point of view of its beloved heroine, Maria.

She's the great


The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is a Pulitzer Prize-winning contemporary American classic, a book that still captivates and inspires readers twenty years after its first publication. Now, in Beautiful Maria of My Soul, Oscar Hijuelos returns to this indelible story, to tell it from the point of view of its beloved heroine, Maria.

She's the great Cuban beauty who stole musician Nestor Castillo's heart and broke it, inspiring him to write the Mambo Kings' biggest hit, ''Beautiful Maria of My Soul.'' Now in her sixties and living in Miami with her pediatrician daughter, Teresa, Maria remains a beauty, still capable of turning heads. But she has never forgotten Nestor, and as she thinks back to her days—and nights—in Havana, an entirely new perspective on the Mambo Kings story unfolds.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In a sequel of sorts to The Mambo King Play Songs of Love, Hijuelos examines the life of the muse of that novel as she moves from childhood to the fast lane in mid-20th century Cuba. María enchants whether she's dancing in clubs, appearing in advertisements, or walking the sweltering streets of Havana. Her story is one of fierce love, luscious sex, and otherworldly beauty, but also of heartbreak and hardness, as she carries painful memories of the death of her sister and her dear mother. The two main men in her life are Ignacio, a nefarious, strong-willed businessman who provides poor María with extravagant clothes and an apartment, and Nestor, a poor musician whom she loves passionately. Less prominent but still present is María's daughter, Teresa, and her growing up in America. Hijuelos's Havana is as much a full-fleshed character as María as it endures the rise of Castro and the mass exodus of Cubans to Miami in the 1960s. An intelligent and playful ending caps off a vivid story that should delight readers of The Mambo Kings and enthrall those new to Hijuelos's imaginative and florid voice. (June)
Library Journal
Readers familiar with Hijuelos's Pulitzer Prize-winning blockbuster The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love (1989) will recognize this title: it's the name of the song that Nestor Castillo penned to his lost love, María. This latest novel explores that love in greater detail. Illiterate but beautiful María García escapes from her peasant surroundings in western Cuba in the hopes of making it big in Havana. There she meets small-time gangster Ignacio but becomes involved with Nestor; Ignacio gets rid of his rival by paying for the Castillo brothers' passage to New York. Later, after hearing the song written for her, María travels to New York to see Nestor; their steamy lovemaking on the last night of her trip is the culmination of the novel's latent eroticism. After Nestor is killed in a car crash, the novel turns briefly pedestrian, updating us about events in María's life. The last section, titled "Oh Yes That Book" (referring to Mambo Kings), fuses reality and fiction; Hijuelos himself makes an appearance, and the characters in this novel talk about those in the earlier one as if they were real. VERDICT In the end, this is every bit as good as Mambo Kings and may even pique interest in the earlier work for those who don't know it. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 3/15/10.]—Lawrence Olszewski, OCLC Lib., Dublin, OH
Kirkus Reviews
A sequel to The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989) that sings with the sweet sensuality of its predecessor. It has been two decades since Hijuelos made his popular breakthrough with The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a band of Cuban emigres whose appearance on I Love Lucy turned a lovesick bolero into a minor classic. That song was titled "Beautiful Maria of My Soul," and here the novelist returns to tell the story of Maria, to render her as flesh and blood as well as exotic (and erotic) inspiration. Yes, she remains "the most dazzling woman in Cuba," one whose beauty inspires rapture in every man who encounters her, including the author: "If that mirror were a man, it would have been salivating; if it were a carpet it would have taken flight; if it had been a pile of wood it would have burst into flame, so lovely was Maria." Yet such beauty is bittersweet, for this is a woman who knows that her fate depends upon it and that inevitably it will fade. There is music in her romance with Nestor Castillo, the shy but handsome trumpeter who will spend years composing the song that pays tribute to her. Each may be the other's true love, but life has other designs, as the novel shows how the beautiful Maria chooses her destiny, rebels against it and makes peace with it. The prose combines the simplicity of a folk tale with the lyricism of a romantic balladeer and the depth of a philosopher, as it encompasses what Maria considers "her holy trinity: God, love, and death." Amid the political undercurrent of revolution in Cuba and with a recognition of the racial complexities of America, Maria finds a new life in Miami, where she raises a daughter whose perspective within the novel ultimately prevails. The result is a sequel that can be relished independently of the first volume while harmonizing with it. More than worth the wait.

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Hachette Books
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Beautiful María of My Soul

Or the True Story of María García y Cifuentes, the Lady Behind a Famous Song


Copyright © 2010 Oscar Hijuelos
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4013-2334-9

Chapter One

Over forty years before, when Nestor Castillo's future love, one María García y Cifuentes, left her beloved valle in the far west of Cuba, she could have gone to the provincial capital of Pinar del Río, where her prospects for finding work might be as good-or bad-as in any place; but because the truck driver who'd picked her up one late morning, his gargoyle face hidden under the lowered brim of a lacquered cane hat, wasn't going that way and because she'd heard so many things-both wonderful and sad-about Havana, María decided to accompany him, that cab stinking to high heaven from the animals in the back and from the thousands of hours he must have driven that truck with its loud diesel engine and manure-stained floor without a proper cleaning. He couldn't have been more simpático, and at first he seemed to take pains not to stare at her glorious figure, though he couldn't help but smile at the way her youthful beauty certainly cheered things up. Okay, he was missing half his teeth, looked like he swallowed shadows when he opened his mouth, and had a bulbous, knobbed face, the sort of ugly man, somewhere in his forties or fifties-she couldn't tell-who could never have been good looking, even as a boy. Once he got around to tipping up his brim, however, she could see that his eyes were spilling over with kindness, and despite his filthy fingernails she liked him for the thin crucifix he wore around his neck-a sure sign, in her opinion, that he had to be a good fellow-un hombre decente.

Heading northeast along dirt roads, the Cuban countryside with its stretches of farms and pastures, dense forests and flatlands gradually rising, they brought up clouds of red dust: along some tracks it was so hard to breathe that María had to cover her face with a kerchief. Still, to be racing along at such bewildering speeds, of some twenty or thirty miles an hour, overwhelmed her. She'd never even ridden in a truck before, let alone anything faster than a horse and carriage, and the thrill of traveling so quickly for the first time in her life seemed worth the queasiness in her stomach, it was so exciting and frightening at the same time. Naturally, they got to talking.

"So, why you wanna go to Havana?" the fellow-his name was Sixto-asked her. "You got some problems at home?"

"No." She shook her head.

"What are you gonna do there, anyway? You know anyone?"

"I might have some cousins there, from my mamá's side of the family"-she made a sign of the cross in her late mother's memory. "But I don't know. I think they live in a place called Los Humos. Have you heard of it?"

"Los Humos?" He considered the matter. "Nope, but then there are so many hole-in-the-wall neighborhoods in that city. I'm sure there'll be somebody to show you how to find it." Then, picking at a tooth with his pinkie: "You have any work? A job?"

"No, señor-not yet."

"What are you going to do, then?"

She shrugged.

"I know how to sew," she told him. "And how to roll tobacco-my papito taught me."

He nodded, scratched his chin. She was looking at herself in the rearview mirror, off which dangled a rosary. As she did, he couldn't resist asking her, "Well, how old are you anyway, mi vida?"


"Seventeen! And you have nobody there?" He shook his head. "You better be careful. That's a rough place, if you don't know anyone."

That worried her; travelers coming through her valle sometimes called it a city of liars and criminals, of people who take advantage. Still, she preferred to think of what her papito once told her about Havana, where he'd lived for a time back in the 1920s when he was a traveling musician. Claimed it was as beautiful as any town he'd ever seen, with lovely parks and ornate stone buildings that would make her eyes pop out of her head. He would have stayed there if anybody had cared about the kind of country music his trio played-performing in those sidewalk cafes and for the tourists in the hotels was hard enough, but once that terrible thing happened-not just when sugar prices collapsed, but when the depression came along and not even the American tourists showed up as much as they used to-there had been no point to his staying there. And so it was back to the guajiro's life for him.

That epoch of unfulfilled ambitions had made her papito sad and sometimes a little careless in his treatment of his family, even his lovely daughter, María, on whom, as the years had passed, he sometimes took out the shortcomings of his youth. That's why, whenever that driver Sixto abruptly reached over to crank the hand clutch forward, or swatted at a pesty fly buzzing the air, she'd flinch, as if she half expected him to slap her for no reason. He hardly noticed, however, no more than her papito did in the days of her own melancholy.

"But I heard it's a nice city," she told Sixto.

"Coño, sí, if you have a good place to live and a good job, but-" And he waved the thought off. "Ah, I'm sure you'll be all right. In fact," he went on, smiling, "I can help you maybe, huh?"

He scratched his chin, smiled again.

"How so?"

"I'm taking these pigs over to this slaughterhouse, it's run by a family called the Gallegos, and I'm friendly enough with the son that he might agree to meet you ..."

And so it went: once Sixto had dropped off the pigs, he could bring her into their office and then who knew what might happen. She had told him, after all, that she'd grown up in the countryside, and what girl from the countryside didn't know about skinning animals, and all the rest? But when María made a face, not managing as much as a smile the way she had over just about everything else he said, he suggested that maybe she'd find a job in the front office doing whatever people in those offices do.

"Do you know how to read and write?"

The question embarrassed her.

"Only a few words," she finally told him. "I can write my name, though."

Seeing that he had made her uncomfortable, he rapped her on the knee and said, "Well, don't feel bad, I can barely read and write myself. But whatever you do, don't worry-your new friend Sixto will help you out, I promise you that!"

She never became nervous riding with him, even when they had passed those stretches of the road where the workers stopped their labors in the fields to wave their hats at them, after which they didn't see a soul for miles, just acres of tobacco or sugarcane going on forever into the distance. It would have been so easy for him to pull over and take advantage of her; fortunately this Sixto wasn't that sort, even if María had spotted him glancing at her figure when he thought she wasn't looking. Bueno, what was she to do if even the plainest and most tattered of dresses still showed her off?

Thank goodness that Sixto remained a considerate fellow. A few times he pulled over to a roadside stand so that she could have a tacita of coffee and a sweet honey-drenched bun, which he paid for, and when she used the outhouse, he made a point of getting lost. Once when they were finally on the Central Highway, which stretched from one end of the island to the other, he just had to stop at one of the Standard Oil gas stations along the way, to buy some cigarettes for himself and to let that lovely guajira see one of their sparkling clean modern toilets. He even put a nickel into a vending machine to buy her a bottle of Canada Dry ginger ale, and when she belched delicately from all the burbujas-the bubbles-Sixto couldn't help but slap his legs as if it was the funniest thing he had ever seen.

He was so nice that she almost became fond of him despite his ugliness, fond of him in the way beautiful women, even at so young an age, do of plain and unattractive-hideous-men, as if taking pity on an injured dog. As they started their approach towards one of the coastal roads-that air so wonderful with the scent of the gulf sea-and he suggested that if she got hungry he could take her out to a special little restaurant in Havana, for obreros like himself workers who earn their living honestly, with the sweat of their brow-María had to tell him that she couldn't. She had just caught him staring at her in a certain way, and she didn't want to take the chance that he might not turn out to be so saintly, even if it might hurt his feelings. Of course, he started talking about his family-his faithful wife, his eight children, his simple house in a small town way over in Cienfuegos,-and of his love of pigs even when he knew they were going to end up slaughtered-all to amuse his lovely passenger.

One thing did happen: the closer they got to Havana the more they saw roadside billboards-"Smoke Camels!" "Coca-Cola Refreshes!" "Drink Bacardi Rum!"-and alongside beautiful estates with royal-palm-lined entranceways and swimming pools were sprawling shantytowns, slums with muddy roads and naked children roaming about, and then maybe another gas station, followed by a few miles of bucolic farmland, those campesinos plowing the field with oxen, and then another wonderful estate and a roadside stand selling fresh chopped melons and fruit, followed by yet one more shantytown, each seeming more run-down and decrepit than the next. Of course the prettiest stretch snaked by the northern coastline, which absolutely enchanted María, who sighed and sighed away over the hypnotic and calming effects of the ocean-that salt and fish scent in the air, the sunlight breaking up into rippling shards on the water-everything seeming so pure and clean until they'd pass by a massive garbage dump, the hills covered with bilious clouds of acrid fumes and half crumbling sheds made of every kind of junk imaginable rising on terraces but tottering, as if on the brink of collapsing in a mud slide caused by the ash-filled rain, and, giving off the worst smell possible, a mountain of tires burning in a hellish bonfire; to think that people, los pobrecitos, lived there!

They'd come to another gas station, then a fritter place, with donkeys and horses tied up to a railing (sighing, she was already a little homesick). She saw her first fire engine that day, a crew of bomberos hosing down a smoldering shed, made of crates and thatch, near a causeway to a beach; a cement mixing truck turned over on its side in a sugarcane field, a coiling flow of concrete spewing like mierda from its bottom; then more billboards, advertising soap and toothpaste, radio shows, and, among others, a movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, whose faces were well known to even the guajiros of Cuba! (Another featured the enchanting visage of the buxom Mexican actress Sarita Montiel; another, the comedian Cantinflas.) Along the way, she just had to ask her new friend Sixto the ugly to stop again-a few miles or so west of Marianao, where they had come across a roadside market, just like the sort one might find in a town plaza, with stalls and long tables boasting everything from pots and pans to used clothes and shoes. Half suffocating from the swinish gases wafting into his cab, Sixto didn't mind at all. What most caught her eye were the racks of dresses over which hung a sign.

"What's that say, señor?" she asked, and Sixto, rubbing his eyes and pulling up on the brake, told her: "It says, rebaja"-which meant there was a sale going on. A group of women, negritas all, were perusing the racks, and so María, needing a new dress to wear in Havana, stepped from the truck and pulled her life savings, some few dollars, which she kept in a sock, out from where she had stuffed it down her dress or, to put it more precisely, from between her breasts.

Most happily and with the innocence of a farm girl, María examined the fabric and stitching of dress after dress, pleased to find that the vendors were very kind and not at all what she had expected. For a half an hour she looked around, the women working those stalls and tables complimenting her on the pristine nature of her mulatta skin, nary a pimple or blemish to mar her face (the kind of skin which had its own inner glow, like in the cosmetic ads, except she didn't use any makeup, not back then, a glow that inspired in the male species the desire to kiss and touch her), the men giving her the up and down, the children running like scamps tugging at her skirt-

You see, my daughter; if I was incredibly good looking in my twenties, you can't imagine what I looked like in my prime, as a girl of sixteen and seventeen-I was something out of a man's dream, with honey skin so glowing and a face so pure and perfect that men couldn't help wanting to possess me.... But being so young and innocent, I was hardly aware of such things, only that-well, how can I put it my love?-that I was somehow different from your typical cubanita.

That afternoon, she bought, at quite reasonable prices, certain dainty undergarments, they were so inexpensive, as well as a blouse, a pair of polka-dotted high heels, which she would have to grow accustomed to, and finally, after haggling with the vendor, she decided upon a pink dress of a florid design, said to have been styled after the Parisian fashion, with ruffles cascading over the shoulders and hips; a dress which she, being frugal, would keep for some ten years. With such items in hand and after she and her benefactor, the half toothless Sixto, had eaten a little something from a stand, they proceeded east into Havana, the city of both torments and love.

Chapter Two

Years later, listening to her stories, her daughter, Teresa, long accustomed to a city like Miami, where she and her mother had lived for most of her life, and with her own fleeting remembrances of Havana from infancy, could only think that her mother, arriving from the bucolic countryside, must have found its very enormity overwhelming. Some twenty guajiro families had lived in her valle, in Pinar del Río, perhaps some one hundred and fifty souls at most, while Havana had a population of (roughly) 2.4 million people (in the "greater metropolitan area," so an antiquated atlas, put out by a steamship line, circa 1946, said). Surely she must have been dumbstruck to see so many people and buildings, and probably trembled at the prospect of spending time there, as if that city would swallow her up.

And Sixto? Once they had made it to Havana's famous Malecón Drive, and were rumbling along that crescent-shaped harbor, waves, at high tide, bursting over the seawall and onto the Avenida de Maceo in exploding plumes, Sixto, wanting to keep her around for as long as possible, decided to take María for a little tour of the center. The slaughterhouse district, way east of the harbor, could wait: Those oinking and grunting, pissing and defecating pigs be damned, I've got a real queen with me!

Soon enough María entered a honeycomb, a labyrinth as challenging as the depths of any forest, for Havana, with its salt-eaten walls, was monumental: a myriad of structures, that city had more than thirty thousand buildings, warehouses, hotels, and hovels, a bodega on practically every corner, a bar or saloon or barbershop or haberdashery or shoeshine stand next to it, and an endless array of alleys, courtyards, plazuelas, and more columned arcades and edifices than María could have ever imagined, with its streets of cobblestone, asphalt, and dirt (roosters and goats and hens in cages in the marketplaces, the smell of blood and flowers everywhere), that city of pillars and ornate facades, of winding alleys and cul-de-sac gardens and statuary-that fellow Sixto had told her Havana's nickname was Paris of the Caribbean-bustled with people and life. So many people, from tourists to policemen to merchants on the street, to crowds of ordinary citizens just going about their business, left María feeling as dizzy as if she had drunk down a cup or two of rum, a bottle of which, incidentally, Sixto had kept in a paper bag under the shredded leather seat of his cab. This he swigged from while showing her the sights-just getting from one end of Obispo Street to the other, in a glut of carts and taxis and lorries, took a half an hour. Driving for so many years, Sixto thought there was nothing to it, so why not a little sip of rum to ease things when the day's work was practically over?-just like her papito's philosophy of life.


Excerpted from Beautiful María of My Soul by OSCAR HIJUELOS Copyright © 2010 by Oscar Hijuelos. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

Gay Talese
Beautiful María is the Queen of the Mambo Kings! Oscar Hijuelos brings this magnificent character to life in this lyrical novel.
Amy Tan
I fell instantly in love with the glorious soul of Beautiful María of My Soul. Hijuelos has created and brought to life two beloved characters, a heart-stealing heroine and Havana during an epoch of changing fate.

Meet the Author

Oscar Hijuelos, the son of Cuban immigrants, was in New York City in 1951. He is a recipient of the Rome Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. His novels—Mambo Kings, Our House in the Last World, The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien, Mr. Ives' Christmas, Empress of the Splendid Season, and A Simple Habana Melody—have been translated into twenty-five languages.

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Date of Birth:
August 24, 1951
Place of Birth:
New York, New York
B.A., City College of the City University of New York, 1975; M.A.,1976

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Beautiful Maria of My Soul 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
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Well worth my time to read.
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