Empress of the Splendid Season

Empress of the Splendid Season

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by Oscar Hijuelos
     
 

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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

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Overview

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.

Editorial Reviews

Susan Jackson
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
Elle Magazine
A richly narrated novel...explores with passion...the strange workings of life, love, [and] family.
Mirabella
There are no boundaries to Hijuelos' writing.
Erica Sanders
True beauty, [Hijuelos] suggests,lies in the small moments of a "decent, genteel, low-key" life. —People Magazine
Time
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.
People
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.
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.
USA Today
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.
Elle
A richly narrated novel...explores with passion. . .the strange workings of life, love [and] family.
Boston Globe
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.
National Review
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.
Boston Sunday Globe
It is hard not to love Lydia Espana.
Michiko Kakutani
...[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
Verlyn Klinkenborg
...[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
Carroll Bogert
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.
USA Today
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.
Time Magazine
There are vivid characters aplenty in the novel's four-decade span.
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.
Library Journal
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
Mark Falcoff
...[A] very human, eminently readable, and very funny book.
National Review
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.
Kirkus Reviews
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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060928704
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
12/28/2003
Series:
Harper Perennial
Pages:
352
Sales rank:
1,489,846
Product dimensions:
5.06(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.79(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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.

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What People are saying about this

Terry Gross
Finely detailed, funny, sweet...a deliberately simple story graced with the power of the ordinary. (Terry Gross, National Public Radio "Fresh Air")

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