Beautiful Maria of My Soul: Or the True Story of Maria Garcia y Cifuentes, the Lady Behind a Famous Song
by Oscar Hijuelos
Reviewed by Chitra Divakaruni
When Oscar Hijuelos' landmark novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, about two musician brothers -- Cesar and Nestor Castillo who move from Cuba to New York -- came out in 1990, it amazed many and raised the hackles of not a few. (But then, which ambitious work that aims to break new ground doesn't?) Readers who loved Mambo Kings applauded Hijuelos' deft and compassionate characterizations -- especially that of Cesar Castillo -- and the novel's lush and unconventional narrative style that echoes the music at the heart of the book. Critics complained that Cesar with his machismo was almost a stereotype, that the overly-detailed scenes of his sexual exploits detracted from the novel, and that the style was rambling and formless. However, fans of the book outnumbered the detractors, and Mambo Kings went on to win a Pulitzer.
Now, 20 years later, Hijuelos gives us a companion novel to Mambo Kings. Beautiful Maria of My Soul tells the story of the woman Nestor Castillo left behind in Cuba but could never forget, and for whom he wrote and rewrote, over a lifetime, his magnum opus. It is a risky undertaking -- readers are bound to compare the novels -- but a fascinating project, because Beautiful Maria gives us Maria's story in her own voice -- and, Rashomon-like, it turns out to be a very different story, indeed.
The novel opens dramatically, with Maria -- innocent, stunningly lovely and illiterate -- travelling from her village to Havana in a pig-farmer's truck, a journey that grows ominous as the farmer gets increasingly amorous. The novel, more chronologically plotted than Mambo Kings, follows Maria through her travails and triumphs as she struggles to establish herself as a nightclub dancer in a fascinating, predatory city that almost destroys her.
Hijuelos powerfully depicts the lush, profligate luxury of Havana under Fulgencio Batista's rule as well as the harsh realities of that society for a woman who has no money and no man to protect her. (The slum scenes early in the book are particularly memorable.) Soon Maria is forced to become the mistress of Ignacio, a petty gangster. When she meets the handsome and good-hearted Nestor, she must choose between the safety and comfort that Ignacio provides, and the life of uncertainty that she would have to take on with Nestor. It is a choice that will haunt all her days.
Hijuelos is a master at capturing lifestyles. Later, when Maria flees Castro's Cuba for America, he invites the reader into the Cuban neighborhoods of Miami, poignantly sketching the immigrants' struggles with the loss of their beloved homeland and the prejudice they face in a new city.
There are facets to Maria's life that, if developed, might have made her a truly memorable heroine: her guilt over her sister's death, her affection for the old man who teaches her to read, her ambiguous feelings for the abusive Ignacio, her longing to have a child -- and her ensuing disappointment at her daughter's plainness. Unfortunately, too often Hijuelos depicts Maria merely as an object of physical desire. Her relationships are explored mainly through numerous repetitive scenes of copulation. When men remember Maria, they can only recall moments of sex. More disappointingly, when Maria herself thinks about the men in her life -- even Nestor -- she values them only by how good they were in bed.
Apart from this shortcoming, Beautiful Maria is a finely written novel, a nuanced and poignant meditation on the life of a woman who is, perhaps, too lovely for her own good.