I read Oscar Hijuelos' award-winning novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love nearly 20 years ago, when it was first published, and never gave much thought to its having a sequel. But when I learned that it had one - told from the perspective of the woman who inspired the fictional Castillo brothers best-known song, Beautiful Maria of My Soul - I remembered enough about the original novel to be interested.
Maria is a woman who seems to exist primarily under the male gaze; her most remarkable quality - not just to those male gazers, but to herself - is her physical beauty. Descriptions of her face, hair, and traffic-stopping body abound in the novel - and I'm not sure a woman would have written her that way. There is more to her, though; the sections of the novel that focus on other aspects of the character - her illiterate country upbringing, her drive to educate herself, her motherhood - were some of the parts I liked most, and I don't think there were enough of them. There was more than enough about her looks, her desirability, and the sexual aspects of her relationships, though, including the skill and physical attributes of her lovers - and that all came across to me in a male voice, despite the fact that the protagonist is female.
As for the song-inspiring love between Maria and Nestor Castillo - my take on that is that theirs was a hormone-driven connection that they believed must therefore be a romantic one. Even in the midst of it, Maria realized they didn't have a lot to talk about. Had they stayed together - that is, had she not refused him because she felt his ambitions were too narrow - biology dictates that the fires would have subsided eventually, and I'm not sure theyd have had much beyond that.
Hijuelos' writing is vivid and descriptive throughout, bringing mid-century, pre-Castro Cuba to life, and generously sprinkled with Spanish words and phrases; I just would have preferred less description of some aspects. My favorite part of the book was its final section, an amusingly meta twist in which the author becomes a character in his own novel when he writes the novel that first told Maria and Nestor's story, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Up until then, Id have called Beautiful Maria of My Soul my most disappointing read of the year; while it kept my attention, I didn't always want it to. I think it would be of interest primarily to readers who recall the earlier novel, and would also appeal to fans of Latino-American literature for its depictions of pre-revolutionary Cuba and the Cuban-American exile community in Miami. I'm not sorry I read it, but I'm sorry I didnt like it better.