With Empress of the Splendid Season, Hijuelos presents the tale of a frustrated immigrant, a melancholy story of downward mobility that serves as a counterpoint to the American Dream of personal advancement. In her native Cuba, Lydia España grew up as the beautiful spoiled daughter of a mayor and successful businessman. However, when she returns home late from a sexual encounter with a middle-aged married man, her furious father expels her from the household. The headstrong girl who had never deigned to tidy her own room ends up in New York, a newcomer forced to earn a living by cleaning other people’s apartments.
The novel begins in 1957, when Lydia, thirty-two, has already been in the United States for a decade. Married to a waiter named Raul and the mother of two, she is obliged by her husband’s heart condition to be the principal breadwinner. Raul had proposed marriage while reciting a poem that called Lydia “the Empress of my love . . . of the most beautiful and splendid season.” Despite the straitened circumstances in which they live, in a shabby Manhattan tenement, Lydia continues to regard herself regally. She ponders the privileged life that she left behind and daydreams about glamorous alternatives to her arduous reality. She daily travels the subway as part of the city’s invisible army of cleaning ladies. By making Lydia his visible protagonist and her prosperous employers peripheral, Hijuelos reverses the usual literary...
(The entire section is 485 words.)