Thursday, November 13, 2008

Monday, December 15: Empress of the Splendid Season by Oscar Hijuelos

Monday, December 15, 2 p.m.

Discussion leader: Edna Ritzenberg

Reserve your copy of The Empress of The Splendid Season

Booklist Review: Hijuelos' saga of a struggling Cuban American family living in New York City unfolds as randomly and enigmatically as everyday life itself. Lydia Espana, called the "Empress of Splendid Season" by her adoring husband, glows at the hub of the narrative wheel. Born into a wealthy Cuban family, Lydia grew up in luxury, surrounded by servants, but she outraged her strict father with her sexual escapades. Disowned and exiled, she ends up poor and alone on Manhattan's Upper West Side, yet, vivacious and resourceful, she accepts her fate with good grace, finds work as a seamstress, and falls in love with Raul, a romantic who works as a waiter and courts her with sweet decorum. They marry, have a son, Rico, and a daughter, Alicia, and strive to better themselves, but Raul becomes ill, and Lydia has to bear the brunt of supporting the family. She becomes a cleaning woman for a set of households whose materially plusher but no less emotionally demanding lives offer provocative contrasts to her own. Lydia works very hard, indulges her husband, drives her American children crazy with her rigid codes of behavior and ambitious expectations, and wins the respect and affection of her employers, and Hijuelos celebrates his sharp-eyed heroine's pride and conviction, dignity and strength, frustrations and triumphs with great insight and admiration. As the decades spin by, he writes intermittently from Raul's, Rico's, and Alicia's perspectives, but everything circles back to Lydia, who learns to stop questioning life and simply embrace it. This is a beautifully wrought tale of self-sacrifice and spiritual growth, suffused with the striking benevolence of Hijuelos' all but angelic narrator. ((Reviewed December 1, 1998)) -- Donna Seaman

Publishers Weekly Review: As in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Hijuelos imagines the life of a humble Cuban-American from the late '40s to the present. Latin sensuality turns to Yankee drudgery when Lydia Espana the spoiled daughter of a small-town Cuban alcalde, is banished from her home in 1947 for staying out till dawn after a dance. Romantic and uneducated, she moves to New York, where marries, and becomes a cleaning woman to keep her sick husband (a handsome waiter with refined manners) and two children from the brink of poverty. Lydia worries and dotes in the manner of a quintessential immigrant mother trying to maintain respectability and make ends meet. While the drab black-and-white of her daily life runs its course, a rich Technicolor fantasy of time-before plays through her head. In memory, Lydia is again the Empress of the Splendid Season, beautiful enough to catch the eye of a Hollywood star. Depicting Spanish Harlem with relentless realism, Hijuelos penetrates the lives behind the humble tenements and massive university buildings. With poignancy, he captures the lonely fear of Lydia's son as he makes his way up the ladder of American success, the apex of which is perhaps not as enviable as he and Lydia assume. Familiar Hijuelos elements--Latin music, introspective men, touches of magic realism in quietly powerful prose--render here a tender and undramatic portrait of a complex woman and her culture. Agent, Harriet Wasserman. Literary Guild selection. (Feb.)

Library Journal Review: Once called the "Professor of Cuba" by her father, Lydia is a long way from Havana in this novel, set in New York City from the 1950s to the mid-1980s. Disowned by her family, Lydia moves to New York and finds work as a seamstress. She marries and has two children, but her hopes of becoming a housewife come to an end when her husband suffers the first of many heart attacks. Lydia goes to work cleaning homes for wealthy New Yorkers, among them the Osprey family, who employ her for 20 years and who feature prominently not only in her life but in her family's as well. Lydia's story is one of assimilation and the future of different cultures as the next generation moves beyond its roots. The novel intermingles time periods, life histories, and social classes to create an intriguing look at family, wealth, and race in modern America. This multigenerational tale from the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is well written and engrossing. Recommended for all public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/98.]--Robin Nesbitt, Hilltop Branch Lib., Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH

Kirkus Reviews: Pulitzer-winner Hijuelos (Mr. Ives— Christmas, 1995, etc.) offers up a slow-moving but sometimes poignant slice-of-lifer about a Cuban-American family from the 1940s onward. The beautiful Lydia Espa§a was born in pre-Castro Cuba, a privileged child with a businessman father who was a model of small-town elegance—and also of a fierce rectitude that made him turn violently against his daughter when she came into her own sexuality and slept one night with a musician. Off she's sent, alone, to New York City, where at first she supports herself as a seamstress—until one night at a party in 1949 she meets her future husband, the stylish Raul, who's working there as a waiter. Though he's ten years her senior, the love is real, marriage follows, and so do two children, Alicia and Rico. Happiness enough blesses the family—until Raul collapses one day on a restaurant floor amid a clatter of dishes and trays, never again to be free of a debilitatingly weak heart that will keep him from returning to his job—with the result that Lydia must be the breadwinner, doing so as that lowliest of workers, the cleaning lady. Years and then decades pass, a touch of Horatio Alger visits the book as an East Side advertising man Lydia cleans for proves wildly benevolent, and there are touches, too, of authorial tendentiousness when Hijuelos lets his theme of poverty versus wealth break through his novel's real tone (—earning in a week . . . what a chichi Soho artist will piss away on a lunch with friends at the Four Seasons . . . —). Most of the time, though, as usual, the author shows himself one of our most affectionate chroniclers of the city's less favored neighborhoods as the '60s come and go, then the '70s, and as the Espa§a family passes—with dignity intact—through time, life, work, sorrow, and love. Sturdy truths and honest humanity in another look at life † la Hijuelos. (Literary Guild selection; author tour) (Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 1999)

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