Oscar Hijuelos’s novel Beautiful Maria of My Soul (2010) is a sequel of sorts to his Pulitzer Prize–winning 1990 novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. In the story of the Mambo Kings, one of the characters, Nestor Castillo, falls in love with a beautiful young girl who sparks his creative spirit. Nestor writes a song for her and calls it “Beautiful Maria of My Soul.” In his 2010 novel by that name, the author looks at the story of the Mambo Kings from Maria’s point of view.
The story is told mostly in flashbacks as Maria Garcia y Cifuentes recalls her life in Cuba. She is currently living outside Miami, Florida, with her daughter, Teresita, who is a physician.
The flashbacks begin in the 1940s as Maria is leaving the village in rural Cuba where she spent her childhood. She is seeking a job in Havana. Her mother, two older brothers, and a younger sister have all died. Her father has brought a new woman into the rundown shack in which they live. Maria does not like the new woman and prefers to take her chances starting out on her own. She hopes to find a job dancing in a club in Havana. Her father is a musician, and he used to take his two daughters from village to village, where they would dance on the streets.
Life in Havana is much more difficult than Maria had imagined. She is only sixteen, and she is very beautiful. Men admire her beauty but she does not have enough training to compete with professional dancers. The only jobs she can find are in second-rate bars, where the dancing routines are more closely related to strip-tease than to artistic performance. She makes enough money to rent a dirty room in a cheap brothel. The owner of the brothel, Matilda Diaz, tries to look out for her; Matilda feeds Maria when she doesn't have enough money to buy food.
As Maria tells Matilda about her life, readers learn that Maria’s brothers died young from typhus. Her mother died slowly from cancer. Her younger sister Teresita suffered from epileptic-like fits and one day jumped off a cliff to end her miserable life. Death of loved ones becomes a theme in Maria’s life, which makes her emotions somewhat calloused. Having to fend off men who are hungry for her body also gives Maria a jaded view of relationships with the opposite sex.
When Maria is eighteen, a man catches her eye. He is enjoying watching her dance at Club Nocturne. He is not especially good looking and is many years older than she is, but he protects Maria when a customer attempts to force her into his lap. The man is Ignacio Fuentes; he is a rich gangster, though he tells Maria he makes his money selling appliances. Ignacio has a car and drives Maria to the beach and back to her village to visit her father. This impresses her.
Although Ignacio buys her clothes and sets her up in an apartment, he is not always good to Maria. He sometimes beats her. Maria also catches him in lies. For instance, Ignacio tells Maria that he must go away, but then she sees him in the city. One time she sees him kissing another woman. Tempers flare, and at one paint, Ignacio is rough with Maria out in public. People gather around but no one comes to Maria’s defense except for a young man who is carrying a trumpet. This young, very handsome man begins to play his trumpet to distract Ignacio. It works. Ignacio stops attacking Maria and walks away.
The musician’s name is Nestor Castillo. He is Maria’s age. He is also tender hearted and immediately falls in love with Maria. They have a torrid love affair; they can hardly go anywhere without being sexually aroused. But Nestor has a dark side. He was a sickly youth and expects that he will die young. This downside to his personality does not sit well with Maria, who has her own personal tragedies that tug at her heart. Although she is emotionally charged by the young musician, she is also a practical woman. When she considers Ignacio, she sees a man neither so sentimental nor so handsome as Nestor. However, Ignacio has a lot of money and can...
(The entire section is 1700 words.)