Title: Empress of the Splendid Season
Publication Date: 1999
Book Condition: Fine
Dust Jacket Condition: As New
Very slight wear marks to cover at binding. Publisher's promotional materials, including nice black and white photo portrait of author inlaid. Bookseller Inventory # 000108
Synopsis: Through four novels in the last decade, Oscar Hijuelos has produced a body of work that is without rival in contemporary literature, both in the lush, incantatory rhythms of his extraordinary prose and in his profound and heartfelt vision. In his transcendent new novel, Hijuelos tells the story of Lydia Espana, a beautiful and formerly prosperous é'migré from pre-Castro Cuba, who becomes a cleaning lady in New York. Once the spoiled, pampered daughter of a small-town mayor and adored by mena "queen of the Congo line"she is forced because of a youthful sexual indiscretion to leave home and, in 1947, finds herself suddenly living the life of a working poor. In time she falls in love with Raul, a humble waiter. One night in a Manhattan ballroom, in the middle of a bolero, Raul purposes marriage, for Lydia is his "empress of the most beautiful and splendid season, which is love."
A life of promise is disrupted when Raul falls ill and Lydia, finding employment as a domestic, becomes the head of the family. Striving to educate her town children, Rico and Alicia, in the style of the upper class, she must endure a lesson in humanity, cleaning the homes of New Yorkers much better off than herself. Among her employers is Mr. Osprey, a reserved and kindly lawyer, who eventuality takes an interest in her family's well-being and, during the turmoil of the 1960s, intervenes at a critical juncture in the life of her teenage son, Rico. Throughout this novel Lydia remains a sensual and powerful woman who meets the trails of a lonely life with humor and a gleam of triumph in her eyea sense that she is someone specialan empress of fortitude, of dignity.
Hijuelo's genius for evoking the heart and soul of his characters has never been more vivid, moving, and impassioned than in Empress of the Splendid Season. A master of eloquent detail, Hijuelos allows Lydia to open up, alive and vibrant on the page. No one writes better of love or the pulse of the city. And no one has better captured the complexity of what happens to generations of people who come to America: how assimilation ius at once the achievement of dreams and yet, sometimes, a loss of what has rooted us to the past.
Lydia, I am to you, as a sparrow adoring the sky;
Lydia, you are as the moon reflecting upon the water,
which is my soul;
Lydia, you are the queen of beauty,
the Empress of my love,
and you preside over the splendidness of my feelings for you,
like the morning sun on the most glorious day
of the most beautiful and splendid season,
which is love...
Raul Espana to his future wife on the night he proposed marriage, 1949, from Empress of the Splendid Season
Review: The collision of Cuban dreams with sometimes harsh American realities has been Oscar Hijuelos's great theme, most notably in Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Certainly it's at the heart of his fifth novel, Empress of the Splendid Season, which chronicles the trials, tribulations, and infrequent triumphs of a Cuban American clan over the course of a half century. The protagonist, Lydia Espana, has grown up in pre-Castro Cuba, the pampered daughter of a prosperous businessman. But when she has the audacity to violate her father's small-town code of conduct--by sleeping with an itinerant musician--she pays a terrible penalty: "Her family, turning unfairly against her with a nearly Biblical wrath, had banished her, unprepared to contend with an indifferent world."
Where is Lydia banished to? New York, of course. And in this most indifferent of cities, the former "queen of the Congo line" finds herself in a less exalted role: that of a cleaning woman. This demotion she accepts with a very credible mixture of resignation and rock-ribbed realism: "The hardest part of being a cleaning woman had to do with the way people looked at her; often as if she were 'nothing.' It hurt her most when men did not notice her. The nature of the work itself, the outfit, the end-of-the-day fatigue, the messiness of that labor were not glamorous, so what could she expect." Lydia is less sanguine about her family's difficulties, from her husband Raul's near-fatal heart attack to her son's brushes with the law. Empress of the Splendid Season is in fact an ensemble piece that passes the point of view from character to character, from generation to generation. But it's Lydia's sensibility--at once stoic and sensuous--that ultimately enlivens this latest take on the American (or perhaps Cuban American) Dream. --William Davies
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