Beautiful Maria of My Soul is the title of both Oscar Hijuelos’ new novel and the song Nestor Castillo writes about his lost love in Hijuelos’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.
This new novel, a sequel of sorts to The Mambo Kings, revisits the story of Nestor’s brief but impassioned love affair with the beautiful Maria, told this time from Maria’s perspective. Maria, devastated by the deaths of her mother and beloved sister, flees the bucolic Cuban countryside of her childhood for a better life in Havana. It is the pre-Castro days, and Havana is a vibrant city filled with a nightlife that never seems to end. Maria quickly finds work as a dancer and becomes the mistress of Ignatio, an alleged mobster.
Nestor, an unwitting witness to a public fight between Ignatio and Maria, comes to her rescue, and they soon fall passionately in love. When Nestor proposes marriage, an opportunistic Maria makes a choice she comes to regret. Faced with the irony of her decision after Castro takes over Cuba, Maria flees her beloved homeland for America with her only child, Teresita, in tow.
Hijuelos’ portrayal of the mother-daughter conflicts between Maria and Teresita is spot on. As different from her mother as she can be, Teresita rejects Maria’s flamboyant lifestyle for a more solitary, intellectual life, ignoring her mother’s prodding to find a “novio” and get married. The ending’s clever twist leaves the door open for yet another sequel.
An affecting portrait of broken dreams and regret, hope and despair, rediscovery and renewal, Beautiful Maria ties up the loose ends of a love story that died with Nestor in The Mambo Kings, but is still very much alive in the heart and soul of his song, “Beautiful Maria.”