The Barnes & Noble Review
The Bolero King Plays Songs of Love
"In 1957 when her beloved husband, Raul, had fallen ill, Lydia Espana went to work, cleaning the apartments of New Yorkers much better off than herself." So begins Oscar Hijuelos's splendid new novel, Empress of the Splendid Season. For the next 40 years, Hijuelos's Cuban-born heroine will continue her humble career, inadvertently discovering the secrets of a long succession of eccentric Manhattanites while mopping and dusting their apartments.
The book's title is from a poem Raul composed one night dancing with Lydia before they were married. "Ever formal and attentive to Lydia, [Raul] remained the gentleman, at first preferring the slow dances, the boleros and ballads, over the mambos and cha-cha-chas, and, though he was not a romantic sort, the right piece of music, say 'Dulce Engano' ('Sweet Deception'), could bring out the poet hiding in his soul...." (Aha Hijuelos is teaching a different style of Latin dance in this novel. Perhaps he even considered calling it The Bolero King Plays Songs of Love.) As Raul dances, reveling in the scent of Lydia's hair, he proclaims that she is the "Empress" presiding over the "splendid season" of love.
Oscar Hijuelos himself feels a little exiled from that song and season. "When you move away from the mythology of love, no matter how well you do in life, there's always a little bit of loneliness," he told me on the phone. He quoted his book's epigraph, from Milton, "Loveliness is the first thing which God's eye named not good...." Hijuelos then elaborated on his melancholy:"Imyself often feel extremely lonely. I mean, it's the nature of my work, solitude. But also I lament the passing of the idea of a community which I could easily fit in."
The community he means is a Cuban-American one. His parents left Cuba for Manhattan in the 1940s, and Hijuelos was born in Spanish Harlem in 1951. "There are strong Cuban-American communities in Miami and New Jersey," he said. "But here in New York, I live in a much more fragmented world in the sense that I belong to many communities and at the same time not solidly to any one."
I was quiet, then joked, "In other words, you're a typical New Yorker."
Hijuelos laughed. And why not? The city is the centerpiece of this book, as Lydia becomes witness to the crazy lives of those who live here. As a cleaning woman, her first clients include a spooky guy whose bathroom wall is covered with upside-down crucifixes and a prim gentleman who one day accidentally leaves pornographic photographs scattered in his bedroom, and a classic Hijuelos touch a frightened cat under the bed. Then Lydia begins her decades-long association with the enigmatic Mr. Osprey described as a dead ringer for Eisenhower who lives in a town house that takes up an entire city block. By the end of her career, after experiencing her neighborhood upheavals during the Columbia University strikes of the '60s, Lydia ends up cleaning for a woman who keeps semi-magical greyhounds in little cages in the living room.
Hijuelos admitted that a number of these stories were based on reality. For example, he knew someone who hung rows of crucifixes upside down along a bedroom wall. Lydia has a reminiscence set in Cuba that was based on what a Cuban lady once told Hijuelos: "She was with her very virginal great aunt in Havana. They saw Errol Flynn and the virginal aunt fainted."
Another Hollywood legend, James Mason, makes an appearance as Lydia glimpses the actor in front of a Manhattan hotel. "Yes, that really happened as well," Hijuelos explained. "I saw James Mason standing in front of the Plaza Hotel eating a sandwich, waiting for a car." Then he added, "Very gingerly eating a sandwich."
I tell the author that encountering a movie star in the flesh is the closest most of us ever come to experiencing magic realism. Hijuelos agreed. "Movie stars are the closest things we have to supernatural presence. The great thing about writing about Manhattan is that it's not implausible for Lydia to see James Mason. He appears as sort of a gleaming knight. There is a little undertone in the book that it's sort of a fairy tale. That's why I introduce these larger-than-life characters to emphasize the more romantic or fairy tale aspects of the story."
This talk of James Mason made me want to know about Hijuelos's Hollywood experiences with The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. "It's a crazy thing," he told me. "You sit around one day idly writing a scene wondering, Will anyone ever read this? And a year later see it up on a screen." Hijuelos even appeared as one of the extras. "There's a funeral scene, and I'm sort of in the crowd milling about." He laughed. "James Mason I'm not."
He then half modestly, half pleased with himself named a number of other movie stars he's met in the flesh. "But you know, the person who excited me most was García Márquez." Hijuelos met the abuelo of all magic realists at the White House during a recent reception for the Colombian president. "Márquez made my day because he told me he loved The Mambo Kings," Hijuelos said with pride, adding, "It's really a thrill to be in contact with a historical personage who is really personally meaningful as opposed to just being a movie star."
Later, while talking about writers we knew and what we were reading, Hijuelos said something that really illuminated his character for me. "I'm a real biography fan. I just finished reading Stefan Zweig's biography of Marie Antoinette (now out-of-print). I'm reading his biography of Balzac. I love reading biographies best because I love seeing the dynamics and curve of people's lives being laid out."
His words made me suddenly understand Empress of the Splendid Season better. As a novel that follows a woman's entire life, it's really a fictional biography. (Or perhaps the real biography of a woman who is only a fictional character.) Either way, this woman did not live just a single life. "Lydia is always thinking of her other past, that alternate one if she had stayed in Cuba," Hijuelos explained. "James Mason both symbolizes the husband she would have had if she'd stayed in Cuba as well as her ideal fantasy of life in America."
Hijuelos was living two lives as well: "I still dream about a boyhood trip to pre-Castro Cuba. If not for a quirk of fate, that is where I would have been born. I would have had my father's childhood experience of growing up on a Cuban farm." Hijuelos revealed that he was as obsessed with James Mason as he was with his doppelgänger's life in Cuba. "I've always kind of liked James Mason the actor," the author said. "Matter of fact, once upon a time I almost wrote a book called The Man Who Thought He was James Mason."That said, swear to God, Hijuelos has to answer the door to let in his...cleaning lady. I don't ask her name. Lydia Espana is surely just a fictional creation. But perhaps she is also as metaphysical as James Mason. Who knows? In Manhattan, anything can happen....
A richly narrated novel...explores with passion...the strange workings of life, love, [and] family.
There are no boundaries to Hijuelos' writing.
True beauty, [Hijuelos] suggests,lies in the small moments of a "decent, genteel, low-key" life. People Magazine
A slow dance, an elegy to a cleaning woman,that continues the author's celebraton of his Cuban roots. A character endowed with romantic yearnings, Lydia moves with stoic grace through the decades...Emotional fine tuning and pitch-perfect prose.
National Public Radio
Finely detailed, funny, sweet...a deliberately simple story graced with the power of the ordinary.
Simply Splendid...In Empress of the Splendid Season, Hijuelos lovingly suggests, true beauty lies in the small moments of a 'decent, genteel, low-key'life...
Los Angeles Times
Nobody writes better about sensual life than Hijuelos, and Empress resounds with sights, tastes, humming ambience...His best novel since his Pulitzer-winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.
Exuberantly written...Hijuelos is an old-fashioned novelist...In Empress of the Splendid Season he has written a story with a lessonhe is telling us how to live.
It's refreshing, in these times of great American prosperity to read a novel about people who are just plain poor. Hijuelos is telling a story about small people, but in his skillful hands, they carry big ideas.
A richly narrated novel...explores with passion. . .the strange workings of life, love [and] family.
It is hard not to love Lydia Espana.
San Diego Union-Tribune
Oscar Hijuelos's powerful, subtle 'Empress' probes the mysteries of the soul. Hijuelos is a story teller...Along the way he beguiles you with anecdotes, vignettes, memories, dreams, reflections and revelations, in prose that is at times lyrical, at times colloquial, and always lucid.
A very human, eminently readable, and very funny book.
Richmond Times Dispatch
Oscar Hijuelos's fifth novel is in many ways his most personal. . . . In the same lush yet disciplined prose that characterizes his best writing, Hijuelos evokes a personal landscape that proves even moe revealing and more affecting. . . .
Cleveland Plain Dealer
This novel is beautifully evocative of a splendid empress, her culture, her time and her past.
San Diego Union Tribune
Empress tells the tale of Lydia Espana through short scenes spanning several decades. What emergesis a poignant portrait of a proud woamn who maintains her dignity despite the hard hand life has dealt her. . . a love note to the 'upper class poor'. . . .
Dallas Morning News
Rita Moreno is a delight, bringing [Empress of the Splendid Season] to life with joy and strength.
The dialogue in Empress is clever and the portraits charming...Hijuelos is at his best depicting everyday folks treading water between the old world and the new.
Time Out New York
This is a novel about frustrated hope: the hope of an immigrant who never manages to assimilate, and the hope of a young woman for whom life didn't turn out as planned. Hijuelos is telling a small story about small people, but in his skillful hands, they carry big ideas.
R. Z. Sheppard
Hijuelos' episodic format doesn't quite gel. But that is more than offset by his emotional fine tuning and pitch-perfect prose.
Boston Sunday Globe
It is hard not to love Lydia Espana.
...[A] chronicle of familial love that unfurls in New York over the last five decades...an altogether smaller, more modest book [that his previous novels] less fecund in its peopling of a fictional world....the novel is not without its rewards...
The New York Times
...[T]he splendid season is, of course, a time of love....the pivotal crises of Lydia's life...comes from the struggle between her instinct for self-invention and her inability to invent a suitable self....The New York that emerges...is as layered as Lydia's innter life....The city both echoes and shapes her moods.
The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Hijuelos (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love) writes his novels as extended fables, depicting the Cuban-American immigrant experience in wise-yet-wistful nostalgic tones. Veteran actress Moreno plays up this quality in her sanguine, full-bodied reading of his newest, treating the author's descriptive prose with the reverence of a magical tale. Lydia Espana, born rich and beautiful in pre-Castro Cuba, is "banished" to the U.S. following a youthful sexual indiscretion. Once in New York City, she falls in love with Raul, a wonderfully romantic waiter. When Raul becomes disabled, Lydia is forced to become a domestic, cleaning the apartments of wealthy Manhattanites. Despite her station in life, Lydia remains an "aloof" and "arrogant" woman, steeped in her old-country values. As her children grow up during the tempestuous 1960s, Lydia becomes a fierce presence in their lives. True to his proven novelistic skills, Hijuelos's tale is richly emotional, filled with robust episodes of intergenerational family life. As audio drama, it comes across especially exuberant. Simultaneous release with the Harper Flamingo hardcover. (Feb.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Lydia Espaa begins life as the daughter of well-to-do parents in Cuba before the rule of Castro. With a father who is unable to forgive the mistakes of a young woman, she emigrates to New York City in the late 1940s. She marries a working-class Cuban, becomes a housewife, and begins to raise a family. But when her husband suffers a heart attack, she is forced to become the breadwinner, working as a cleaning lady for families with much better circumstances than her own. During the course of her working life she sees cultural conflicts, generational gaps, the changing status of women, and the decline of traditional values. She endures by maintaining her pride and self-assurance. Although confined to the Cuban experience, this story, from the author of The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez OBrien (Audio Reviews, LJ 6/1/93), is one to which immigrant and first-generation American women who grew up in the mid-20th century can relate. With authentic accents, reader Rita Moreno gives life to the characters and conveys the intensity and range of their feelings. Highly recommended for fiction collections.Catherine Swenson, Norwich Univ. Lib., Northfield, VT
...[A] very human, eminently readable, and very funny book.
The Miami Herald
Exuberantly written...Hijuelos is an old-fashioned novelist...In Empress of the Splendid Season he has written a story with a lesson he is telling us how to live.
Pulitzer-winner Hijuelos (Mr. Ives' Christmas) offers up a slow-moving but sometimes poignant slice-of-lifer about a Cuban-American family from the 1940s onward.
The beautiful Lydia Espana was born in pre-Castro Cuba, a privileged child with a businessman father who was a model of small-town elegance; and also of a fierce rectitude that made him turn violently against his daughter when she came into her own sexuality and slept one night with a musician. Off she's sent, alone, to New York City, where at first she supports herself as a seamstress; until one night at a party in 1949 she meets her future husband, the stylish Raul, who's working there as a waiter. Though he's ten years her senior, the love is real, marriage follows, and so do two children, Alicia and Rico. Happiness enough blesses the family; until Raul collapses one day on a restaurant floor amid a clatter of dishes and trays, never again to be free of a debilitatingly weak heart that will keep him from returning to his job; with the result that Lydia must be the breadwinner, doing so as that lowliest of workers, the cleaning lady. Years and then decades pass, a touch of Horatio Alger visits the book as an East Side advertising man Lydia cleans for proves wildly benevolent, and there are touches, too, of authorial tendentiousness when Hijuelos lets his theme of poverty versus wealth break through his novel's real tone ("earning in a week what a chichi Soho artist will piss away on a lunch with friends at the Four Seasons").
Most of the time, though, as usual, the author shows himself one of our most affectionate chroniclers of the city's less favored neighborhoods as the '60s come and go, then the '70s, and as theEspana family passes; with dignity intact; through time, life, work, sorrow, and love. Sturdy truths and honest humanity in another look at life, ala Hijuelos.
Read an Excerpt
In 1957 when her beloved husband, Raul, had fallen ill, Lydia Espana went to work, cleaning the apartments of New Yorkers much better off than herself. She took up that occupation because Raul, with jobs in two restaurants, had waited on so many tables, for so many hours, and had snuck so many drinks from the bar and smoked so many cigarettes, that his taut heart had nearly burst, half killing him one night at the age of forty-one. (Lydia imagined the heart muscles all twisted like a much used table rag.) She went to work because, aside from their own children, her husband had a second little family to look after in Cuba (the devil!) and because, among other reasons involving the vicissitudes of making money, they were suddenly "poor."
She was thirty-two years old and carried herself with theimperious attitude of a young movie starlet (so she fancied). Thin but voluptuous enough to draw the attentions of men, she had fiercely intelligent eyes, a lovely and inquisitive face; her dark and curly hair falling to her shoulders. She had been living in New York for ten years by then, her family's third-floor walk-up apartment situated on a block of tenements in a working-class neighborhood not too far from the 125th Street and Broadway El. Her English was adequate but not good enough for the Woolworth's store manager to hire her, nor for the Macy's personnel department. For a few afternoons a week, she found a "part-time" in the neighborhood, at the 120th Street A&P, sweeping wood shavings off the narrow and musty floors and dusting dirt and moth wings off the tops of thirty-two-ounce-size juice cans and detergent bottles that lined the aisles, aroutine that often forced her to crouch down, embarrassing Lydia when friends like Juanita Lopez or Mrs. Esposito, whose husband owned a pizzeria, came along. On her way home she found herself clicking her tongue and shaking her head, as if to ask, "How did a woman of my background end up doing this?" She had such thoughts because in her other life, before she had arrived in New York, she had been the spoiled, hard-to-reach daughter of a businessman who was also the alcalde--or mayor--of their small town in Cuba, by the sea. She had her own maids and servants and a carriage driver/chauffeur back then, and she had never given the idea of work or the suffering of others much thought; but that was before her family, turning unfairly against her with a nearly Biblical wrath, had banished her, unprepared to contend with an indifferent world.
And now, who, looking at her putting away soup cans in a supermarket aisle, would believe her? Or care?
People in the neighborhood always found Lydia a little aloof and arrogant, for early on she had made certain conscious choices about whom her family would consort with. It had nothing to do with money--few in that part of the city had money. But she made distinctions between people without money who had class and refinement and those who did not. Like her best friend, Mireya Sanchez, a petite and beautiful public high-school teacher whom she had met at church, or Mr. Fuentes, the butcher who was also a poet--("The blood of eternity is in this steak"). Or the piano tuner, Mr. Haines, who worked at Juilliard, a few blocks away, and sometimes brought her family the odd classical recording, usually something like Liszt, which they never listened to if they could help it. (To Perez Prado, yes, to Marion Sunshine, yes, to Frank Sinatra, yes.) Or their postman, Mr. Brown, a black man with the clearest eyes on the earth and a scent of sweet lilacs about him, the most courteous of her acquaintances; or, on the floor below, that professorial fellow who was always traveling far away, Dr. Merton, an archeologist or classicist of some kind with his scholarly preoccupations and eclectic tastes, the kind of gent to wear a Japanese kimono, and an ankh hanging off a chain around his neck, while throwing out his garbage; or Mr. Belky, the pharmacist, in his heavy suits even in the summer, who used to bring the family the urgent telephone messages he received in their name, as when Raul fell ill. (They did not yet have a telephone.) Then, to the contrary, there were la gente baja--the drunks on the street, the petty Irish gangsters who sold cartons of Virginia cigarettes out of the trunks of their Oldsmobiles down by the 125th Street pier, the drug addicts, the crazy people who shouted and threw parties all night, broke bottles in the alleys and tossed their garbage out the windows--persons whom Lydia would have been happy to live without.
Still, they were a part of her world.
With her head held high, and posture correct, Lydia had always conducted herself with a quiet dignity, dressing as well as she could afford and seeing to it that her children, Rico and Alicia, who were four and six years old, behaved genteelly. (Poor Rico, with his hair slicked to the sides and parted straight down the middle, and his shiny black shoes, high white knee socks, matador jacket, and knee pants.) Even while shopping in the crowded Klein's department store on 14th Street, where she hoped to save a few dollars--the way of the wizened poor--Lydia tried to maintain a ladylike demeanor, reluctant to push and shove and elbow her way through to the bins stacked with three-for-a-dollar boys' underwear, the seventy-nine-cents ladies' blouses, the two-dollar sneakers, or whatever else the sales help dumped from big cardboard cartons onto the "marked down" tables. Liking to think of herself as upper lower class, she moved through her days with an otherworldly detachment (shock) that sometimes put people off--"What, you think you somebody better?"--and with a patience for the rudeness of others that, years later, she would say other people did not deserve. (And if she fought back, struggling over a few dollars saved on a pair of trousers or a skirt, and won, her "triumph" hardly seemed worth the trouble, at least to her children, or so they would remember, the mad scrambling for bargains always leaving them with feelings of shame.) Empress of the Splendid Season. Copyright © by Oscar Hijuelos. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.