By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
Like so many
of Oscar Hijuelos' earlier novels, "Empress of the Splendid Season" is
of familial love that unfurls in New York over the last five decades. It is another tale of a Cuban
family, torn between fading memories of life back home in Cuba and the glittering promises of the
American Dream, between the centripetal powers of kinship and tradition and the centrifugal forces
of history and generational change.
two best known novels, "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love" (1989)
and "The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien" (1993), worked these themes on a
colorful, epic canvas, "Empress" is a smaller, more modest book. It is less fecund in its peopling
of a fictional world, less ambitious in its orchestration of overlapping stories. Even its language
tends to be less expansive,less exuberant than its predecessors.
is such a fluent writer, because he writes with such affection for his
the novel is not without its rewards, but it remains, in contrast to his earlier books, an oddly
attenuated piece of fiction, lacking both the energy of "Mambo Kings" and "Sisters" and the
fierce narrative control of " Ives' Christmas" (1995). In fact it often feels like a tired reworking
of old material, a musty, paint-by-numbers version of Hijuelos' favorite preoccupations and
motifs, brightened with a few splashes of inspiration.
The title character
of "Empress" is Lydia Espana, a Cuban emigre who has been a cleaning woman
since her husband, Raul, a waiter, began having heart problems. Lydia, who carries herself "with the
imperious attitude of a young movie starlet," strikes many of her acquaintances as snobbish,
self-pitying and pretentious. She likes to think she has more in common with the cultivated people
she works for than with many of her neighbors, and she imposes a strict code of behavior and dress
on her children.
In quick, summary
fashion, Hijuelos sketches in Lydia's history and the events that transformed
her from "the Empress of the Splendid Season" into "Lydia the Spanish cleaning lady."
told, was the spoiled daughter of a well-to-do Cuban businessman who kicked
her out of the house when he found out about her affair with a middle-aged man. She left Cuba
for New York in 1947 and soon found her movie-fueled dreams of America -- "where life was
all pearl necklaces, fancy mansions, speak-easies, gangsters, cowboys and unbelievably
glamorous women or drop-dead handsome men" -- dissolving in the fetid gloom of a sweatshop
where she worked as an apprentice seamstress.
people's apartments is something of an improvement, but it's still
a demeaning job,
and it's portrayed by Hijuelos in flat, generic terms that substitute clumsy symbolism for the mythic
resonance of his earlier books.
broad generalizations about cleaning women daydreaming about "winning new
washing machines on the 'Queen for a Day' television show," and wearing tennis shoes and "thick
nylons with runs in them." He writes about the hardships endured by cleaning women with children --
women "who dragged themselves out of bed early in the mornings and, leaving the kids with a
neighbor, if they could, worked six days a week and still could never earn enough to make ends
He tries to flesh
out Lydia's experience with little vignettes about other cleaning women
one who won the lottery and moved from the Bronx to Astoria, Queens; another who scrimped and
saved with her husband to buy a bungalow in the Catskills, only to die of cancer shortly after retiring
from her job.
None of these
walk-on characters develops into a memorable human being, and the same
said of Lydia's employers, a motley assortment of rich people and eccentrics whose lives Lydia
vicariously enjoys. Even Osprey, her favorite employer, who helps her son, Rico, remains a strangely
fuzzy collection of class stereotypes: a wealthy, aristocratic lawyer who knew President Eisenhower,
who liked to travel abroad and who treated his staff with paternalistic affection.
novel, the contrast drawn between Osprey's life and Lydia's feels mechanical
pat. His world is filled with "glamour and money, cleanliness and good manners," while hers is
defined by what she will never do: "Never buy a piece of property. Never own a firsthand car.
Never sit by a late 19th-century French writing desk at the Armory Show, scribbling out checks
without a single doubt."
A similar predictability
attends Hijuelos' depiction of the generational disputes within the Espana
family: just as a sexually precocious Lydia rebelled against her strict father, so her liberated daughter
Alicia rebels against her; and just as Lydia grew estranged from her family, so her children drift away
from her. This sort of schematic rendering of the schisms in the Espana clan stands in sharp contrast
to the highly nuanced dissection of the familial bonds of love, resentment and regret found in the
author's earlier novels, and it's qualified only by Hijuelos' sympathetic rendering of the difficulties
Rico has leaving the world of his parents behind.
his mother's expectations, Rico works hard in school, goes to college and
and becomes a highly paid psychotherapist, ministering to well-heeled yuppies. In achieving success,
however, Rico has misplaced his sense of self. There is a chilliness to his dealings with his parents
now, and he eventually realizes that he belongs nowhere, neither to his mother's world in Harlem nor
to Osprey's world on Park Avenue. He has become an emotional exile, disconnected from both his
past and his present.
detailed in the final chapters of "Empress," closes the novel on a persuasive
does not make up for the perfunctory tone of much of his mother's saga. From another writer,
"Empress" might read like a promising work of fiction, filled with hints of better things to come. From
the richly talented Hijuelos, who has spoiled his readers until now, it comes as a disappointment.
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company