Time Out New York
Empress of the Splendid Seasonby Oscar Hijuelos
Oscar Hijuelos vividly brings to life the joys, desires, and disappointment of American life witnessed through the experience of a formerly prosperous Cuban émigré named Lydia Espana—now a cleaning woman in New York. In magnetic prose, he juxtaposes Lydia's tale with the stories of her clients, contrasting her experiences with the secret lives… See more details below
Oscar Hijuelos vividly brings to life the joys, desires, and disappointment of American life witnessed through the experience of a formerly prosperous Cuban émigré named Lydia Espana—now a cleaning woman in New York. In magnetic prose, he juxtaposes Lydia's tale with the stories of her clients, contrasting her experiences with the secret lives of those for whom she works. No one writes better of love or the pulse of a city, nor has any writer better captured the complexity inherent in the emigration experience; how assimilation is at once the achievement of dreams, yet also a loss of the past. Empress of the Splendid Season is Hijuelos at his masterful best, a novel filled with incantatory, rhythmic prose and rich in heartfelt vision.
Time Out New York
The New York Times
The New York Times Book Review
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.
What People are saying about this
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >