"Empress of the Splendid Season," by Oscar Hijuelos. Harper Flamingo. 352 pages. $25.
The price of admission to the land of opportunity is high. The obvious and the hidden costs of assimilation into American society have been a recurring theme in Oscar Hijuelos' fiction. The immigrants of his novels lose their pasts along with their Cuban roots and lose their futures when they find themselves separated from their children by unbridgeable cultural gaps.
Hijuelos' sagas of Cuban immigrants in "Our House in the Last World" (1983), "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love" (1989), and "The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien" (1993) have won him a Pulitzer Prize, a Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and nominations for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, among others. The protagonist of his fourth novel, "Mr. Ives' Christmas" (1995), is a foundling of uncertain origins. This uncertainty leaves him as emotionally unassimilated as Hijuelos' other protagonists feel culturally unassimilated.
In his latest novel, "Empress of the Splendid Season," Hijuelos adds a degree of complexity to his familiar motif with the issue of class. Lydia Espana was once the beautiful, spoiled and vain daughter of a wealthy mayor in a small Cuban town. At 22, her father kicked her out of the house when she had a one-night stand with the leader of a traveling orchestra. Arriving in New York in 1947 with little English and fewer skills, Lydia is reduced to cleaning apartments in Manhattan in order to support herself, her two children, and a husband suffering from chronic heart disease.
Four decades of hard work leave her beauty a bit worn, but her vanity untouched. As judgmental and unyielding as her father, Lydia first estranges most of her neighbors and then her children. Some of the few people she respects and deigns to consider her equals are a fabulously wealthy family, the Ospreys, whose apartment she cleans. Lydia's daughter, Alicia, escapes her mother's rigidity by indulging in several years of promiscuity and drug use before settling down with an American husband. Lydia's son, Rico, is taken up by Mr. Osprey, who puts him through private schools and "an esteemed New England institution" until he becomes a psychotherapist.
Despite their success, Lydia's children remain as bound by cultural barriers as by those of class. They are simply on the other side and are thus unable to relate to Lydia on any but the most superficial level.
Nonetheless, the real source of Lydia's and her children's shallowness is the author's limited imagination. Hijuelos is unable to bring these characters to life with sufficient depth to make them engaging in any but the most token fashion. They all lack self-knowledge and are no more than the sum of their various particularities. The reader certainly feels compassion for their difficulties, but they remain cardboard figures of limited interest.
In "Empress of the Splendid Season," Hijuelos lays the groundwork for a remarkable novel that could have vividly illustrated the ambivalence felt by first- and second-generation immigrants and the intricate web of conflicting emotional needs and responsibilities that holds them fast. The actual novel is instead a rather pale reflection.
Tess Lewis' translation of Peter Handke's "Once Again to Thucydides" will be published by New Directions this fall. She writes essays and reviews for the American Scholar, the Hudson Review and the New Criterion. She has a master's degree in English Literature from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar.
Pub Date: 02/21/99