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The Barnes & Noble Review
With an uncanny understanding of the intricacies of the human spirit, Oscar Hijuelos -- Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love -- creates beautifully flawed, emotionally fragmented characters who are at once passionate and sexless, impenetrable and vulnerable, godlike and meaningless. Hijuelos's melancholic, multilayered A Simple Habana Melody paints a portrait of another conflicted character whose self-centeredness, myopia, and unrequited passion wildly intertwine to stymie a promising career and hopes of happiness.
It is 1947, and Israel Levis, a once world-famous musical composer, has just returned to his native Cuba after imprisonment in a WWII Nazi death camp. When the corpulent, gentlemanly Levis becomes snuggled safely once again into his native land, his thoughts rush back to his longtime secret love, Rita Valladares, an alluring singer-siren for whom he wrote his simple yet infectious 1928 song "Rosas Puras" ("Pretty Roses"). As the narrative sweeps through 1930s Paris and the Nazi occupation of France, we see how Levis's universally appealing rumba, like his undying -- and unfulfilled -- desire for Valladares, remains a pure constant even as his selfish devotion to music, excessive pride, vague homosexual yearnings, and indifference to his own drunkenness block the maestro from seriously pursuing creative and personal happiness.
With the bustling creative communities of Paris and Havana of the 1930s as a backdrop, Hijuelos's vivid storytelling paints an achingly romantic portrait of artistic waste, sexual restraint, and stunted intellectual inspiration. A Simple Habana Melody is a complex, atmospheric, and elegant work that beguiles even as it leaves the reader with puzzling questions about the nature of passion and devotion. (Will Romano)