In Empress of the Splendid Season, his fifth novel, Oscar Hijuelos continues exploring familiar territory: the lives of first- and second-generation Cuban Americans in New York City. This territory is familiar from his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989) and draws on Hijuelos’s own New York background as the son of Cuban immigrant parents. Like his other works, Empress of the Splendid Season is a family saga that examines such subjects as love, sexuality, memory, identity, and longing. Cuban American music plays a role in the novel, as does popular culture generally (most notably, brief appearances by a couple of film stars, Errol Flynn and James Mason). While Hijuelos’s narrative technique in the novel—rambling subtitled episodes that begin in medias res and, with numerous retrospective glances, build only roughly in a chronological direction—might be considered postmodern, the continuing influence of Victorian novelist Charles Dickens can be seen from Hijuelos’s earlier novel Mr. Ives’ Christmas (1995). As is often the case in Dickens’s works, Empress of the Splendid Season centers around a main character fallen on hard times, plus a host of supporting characters including a rich benefactor.
The big difference in Empress of the Splendid Season is that the novel centers around a woman, Lydia España, a cleaning lady. Lydia is one of the army of cleaning ladies who travel New York’s subway system daily (sometimes nightly) to do battle with dirt in the apartments of the rich and famous and in high-rise corporate headquarters. The novel evokes a sense of compassion for these sturdy women who must leave their own families behind to ease the lives of others, who do exhausting physical labor, who work with harsh chemical cleaners, who put up with the complaints and disgusting habits of customers, and who are paid a dismally low wage, provided they can always collect it. Most of all, the self-worth of these women takes a battering. Amid scenes of privilege and opulence, they are perpetually reminded of their lowly status in the social order, as if they were created to get on their knees and clean the toilets of the world.
For most people who enjoy their services, perhaps, cleaning ladies are pretty much taken for granted. Who would suspect that these drab, insignificant creatures have any kinds of lives? One hardly notices them any more than one does the furniture. In a stroke of genius, Empress of the Splendid Season reverses this insensitive perspective. Not only is Lydia España a proud Cuban American beauty who has family and friends, but she is also in a unique position to gain insight into the lives of her clients, some of whom seem pretty weird, not to mention messy and lonely. A few of her clients are smart enough to clean up before the cleaning lady arrives, but how the others live is sort of an open book with a sad plot. An important question raised by Empress of the Splendid Season is whether the lowly cleaning lady lives a richer, happier life than do many of her well-off clients.
Yet Lydia España’s life is not an easy one. Her life seems to be marked by bad luck. She grows up as the privileged daughter of a Cuban businessman and mayor of their small seaside town, but because of a sexual indiscretion that she commits when she is twenty-two, her father disowns her and kicks her out of the house. She emigrates to New York City, where, without money or friends, she ends up as an apprentice seamstress in a sweatshop. Eventually she meets Raul, a waiter, and they get married. After eight years and two children, Raul suffers a heart attack and Lydia is forced to support the family. With a limited command of English, she is able to get work only as a cleaning lady. She remains a cleaning lady for the rest of her life.
Empress of the Splendid Season, however, is not primarily a sociological novel documenting the plight of cleaning ladies. In some ways, as the title suggests, it is just the opposite—a celebration of life. If Lydia España is a cleaning lady, she is a cleaning lady with a difference, and vive la différence. In describing Lydia’s sexuality, for example, Oscar Hijuelos seems on the verge of waxing mythic. As a spoiled young beauty, she tantalizes the men in her small Cuban town with her tight dresses, sexy walk, and lascivious dancing: “old women, mambises, taught her how to dance, her hips on those nights the center of the universe. Under the spell of the Yoruban gods and Ginger Rogers, she turned every male head toward her.”
Her sexual indiscretion at the age of twenty-two consists of seducing an orchestra leader almost twice her age: On a dark patio out back, she shoves his hand “into the dampness of her pubic glory” and says, “Show me what you can do for a woman like me.” Later in New York she sleeps around, “mainly [with]...
(The entire section is 2020 words.)