The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love: A Novel

by Oscar Hijuelos

Hardcover, 2015

Call number





Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2015), Edition: 25 Anv, 416 pages


Cesar and Nestor Castillo move to New York from Cuba in 1949 to form a mambo band, and eventually play on I Love Lucy.

Media reviews

You finish feeling as Cesar's first music teacher in Cuba told him audiences should feel when a song ends -ready to throw up your arms and cry, ''Que bueno es!'' Mr. Hijuelos is writing music of the heart, not the heart of flesh and blood that stops beating, ''but this other heart filled with light and music . . . a world of pure affection, before torment, before loss, before awareness.''

User reviews

LibraryThing member BookConcierge
Cesar Castillo, the Mambo King himself, is an old man, and is remembering his life (and loves) in Cuba and New York as he approaches death. In the middle of the book is a quote that perfectly describes Cesar’s life: “Me siento contento cuando sufro,” he sang one day, “I feel happy when I’m suffering.”

Cesar and his younger brother Nestor arrive in New York full of ambition and desire to be musicians. They are talented and willing to work hard, and with some luck, put together an orchestra (The Mambo Kings), riding the popularity of the mambo craze of the late 1940s. They even get a guest appearance on “I Love Lucy” after Desi Arnaz catches their nightclub act one evening. The appearance gives them a measure of celebrity and helps them to sell several records. But true fame is just beyond their reach.

Nestor is an incredibly talented trumpet player and songwriter, but he suffers from unrequited love for the woman who left him when he still lived in Cuba. He marries Delores and starts a family, but still pines for the “Beautiful Maria of My Soul” of whom he sings. His deep melancholy ends only when the car he is driving skids off the road in a snowstorm, killing him.

Cesar has always been the driving force for the Mambo Kings – a handsome, suave, baritone who charms the audience and spreads his favors among the many women he “loves.” He’s generous to a fault, freely bestowing gifts and money on those he befriends, as well as supporting his family members still in Cuba. But after Nestor dies, he simply cannot continue to be the leader he once was. He descends into a depression that begins slowly to eat at him, fueled by drinking and excess.

It is a melancholy story, but lyrically told and impassioned. Cesar’s reflections on his life give us a moving portrait of the man, his community and the times. Hijuelos writing is evocative and moving; the book leaves my heart aching for Cesar and Nestor.
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LibraryThing member kraaivrouw
I read this book when it first came out and loved it. After the follow-up book, Beautiful Maria of My Soul became available, I decided I need to read it again. I still love it.

The story of two Cuban brothers who immigrate to New York in the '50's to pursue their musical dreams, The Mambo Kings Play Song of Love really captures the flavor of its time and of its music. The language and imagery are rich and evocative of black beans and rice, platanos, cigarette smoke, and music spilling out into the street. I especially loved the descriptions of the brothers, silhouetted in their windows playing and composing music (much to the dismay of their sleeping neighbors) - this is classic imagery, reminding me of photos of musicians from the time.

Mambo Kings is earthy and sensual - its mood hectic and vibrant - and offers us a glimpse into another time and culture (and isn't that what the best books do?).
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LibraryThing member evanroskos
This is a great novel - it's full of sex and longing and bad behavior. It's also twice as long as the film, which takes its story from the first half. Definitely a strong work.
LibraryThing member dbsovereign
While there is some comedic relief in this book, it is saturated with tragedy. True to life perhaps in many aspects, it is also riddled with a compelling sensuousness. Beginning and ending with brief first-person background, it tells the history of two Cuban brothers who try to forge musical lives for themselves in New York City. Along the way they encounter famous people (including Desi Arnaz) and struggle to provide for their families. Music redeems them and helps them transcend the mundane.… (more)
LibraryThing member spounds
This is one of those breathless books. The kind that speaks in clauses. And sometimes phrases. And includes sentences with lots of commas, as when you list the parts of speech like noun, verb, adverb, adjective, and pronoun. It is the kind of book that makes me dizzy.

I bought this book a long time ago because I knew it was a Pulitzer Prize winner. It sat on my shelf for awhile, but I picked it up recently after receiving "Beautiful Maria of My Soul" as an Early Reviewer.

My immediate reaction after the first 50 pages or so was that I rereading "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." It had that same stream of conciousness kind of feeling to it. That same dizziness.

Eventually, though, Mambo Kings grew on me. I think the thing that made it work better than Oscar Wao was the whole setting. An old man, Cesar Castillo, is sitting in the Hotel Splendour, listening to one of his old records and thinking back on his life. The stories he remembers are in no particular order and while that may be hard for the reader to grasp early on, it is true of the way most of us reminisce. One thing leads to another but often not chronologically.

The stories are infused with lots of sex and lots of music--two things that define most of Cesar's life. Sometimes it can seem a bit much to the reader, but then again it seems true to the character of Cesar. Those two things WERE just about all he thought about, so any night thinking back on his life would necessarily revolve around them.

Mambo Kings wasn't my favorite book, but it's one I'll remember for awhile. It stretched me as a reader and brought me out of my comfort zone, which is a good thing. I'm anxious to begin "Beautiful Maria" now. I am curious to know if Hijuelos uses the same device to tell the story or goes for a more traditional narrative.
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LibraryThing member maryreinert
When I first read this book, I was blown away by the writing. Hijuelos is a master of description; the scents, sounds, and scenes are as vivid as any I have read. The portrayal of a simple man, Cesar, shows how complex we all really are.

However, I must say after the second reading, I was somewhat turned off by the sex and I didn't like Cesar nearly as well. I'm not sure what made the difference (it was probably a year between readings). Still Hijuelos is a fantastic writer; I just like some of his other works better.… (more)
LibraryThing member actonbell
"Beautiful Maria of My Soul. A song about love so far away it hurts; a song about lost pleasures, a song about youth, a song about love so elusive a man can never know where he stands; a song about wanting a woman so much death does not frighten you, a song about wanting that woman even when she has abandoned you."

Oscar Hijuelos's novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is a beautifully written historical novel about Cesar Castillo, who comes to New York City from Cuba in 1949 with his younger brother Nestor with the dream of becoming successful musicians. For a short period of their tumultuous lives, this dream does come true.

At the end of his life in 1980, Cesar has deliberately ensconced himself in The Hotel Splendour, to die alone. This is his story, told in flashback. As the reader will surmise immediately, Cesar Castillo never became rich, never lived an easy life, and the excessiveness of his lifestyle--the constant drinking, the lack of sleep, the womanizing--are there to drown out Cesar's deep-seated emotional problems and unhappiness. Cesar is the brother who is always able to hide this melancholy from himself and others, yet when the withdrawn, taciturn Nestor dies, his defenses crumble. It is as if Nestor bequeathed his depression to his older brother, to carry along with the self-destructive habits that were already there.

Cesar Castillo is a richly drawn character who has his good-natured, generous A side, along with his dastardly B side. He is crippled by the need to be macho, but there is a love-starved, abused boy that is still crying out for help. And so, at the end of his life, there are people he has hurt as well as people who will remember him fondly and gratefully forever.

Oscar Hijuelos made every character's pain throb on the page, but this is not a hard book to read. He made Cesar's alcoholism painful and his sexual urges unbearable.

The author also brings a time period and culture back to life in this story. I enjoyed the book very much!

Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love won the Pulitizer Prize in 1990.
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LibraryThing member Larou
This is a book about two brothers from Cuba who formed a Mambo band in the fifties and emigrated into the United States. It has kind of a double structure: on the hand it, it mimics (starting with the title) a record with A and B side, but it also is a doubly framed narrative, with the son of one of the brothers imagining the other brother (that's his uncle, obviously) spending his last few days in his room in a shabby hotel reminiscing and imagining his life. Which means that except for two brief, prologue/epilogue-like passages at the beginning and the end of the novel the reader is told everything from at least one and most frequently two or three removes away.

This sounds more complicated than it actually is when reading the novel - while The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love does like to jump back and forth in time, its essentially episodic character keeps it from getting confusing; the narration is not so much fragmented as split down into small units that work mostly independently from each other and just happen to share characters (which fits quite well with - possibly even is a consequence of - the record-like structure of the novel, which is a collection of songs rather than a unified work like, for example, a symphony). And while the novel keeps reminding the reader from time to time that they're one or two narrators away from events as they actually happened, it never really makes much of this and avoids any kind of in-depth explorations of the unreliability of memory or the epistemology of narrative.

What The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love focuses on instead and what indeed it is mostly about is masculinity, about the ways males attempt to assert their manhood and the ways they hurt not only women but themselves in the process. The novel's first part (the A side of the imaginary record) contrasts two types of masculinity, embodied in the two Castillo brothers: Cesar, who is an unabashed macho and sleeps with as many women as he can, each of them another proof of his manhood, and Nestor who proves his masculinity by staying true to a single woman, even after she left him and he has found happiness with another woman. Hijuelos shows convincingly how the apparently deep, sensitive and soulful type of man who keeps pining after his one true love is just as (if not even more) oppressive to women and ultimately self-destructive than superficial, unsteady machismo. The second part focuses entirely on Cesar and shows how his manhood falls into pieces as it grows older - as he largely defines himself by way of his penis (and its supposedly impressive size), his identity and sense of self-worth start to come apart as the seams when he grows older and increasingly less attractive to women, until he finally only keeps himself upright and intact by reminiscences of his former sexual acts.

I thought the first part worked better than the second one because the contrasting attitudes of the two brothers kept things more lively and interesting than Cesar whining about how it he can't get it up anymore - the lonely old man in his hotel room mourning his past was probably supposed to be sad and melancholic, but for the most part just comes across as querulous and fretful. What Hijuelos does really well is steep the reader in the atmosphere of the time and place he is describing (even though in some passages he does rely rather too much on simple name-dropping to create a mood), particularly his descriptions of pre-revolutionary Cuba are vivid and intense and infused with the kind of elegiac nostalgia he fails to achieve with the fate of aging Cesar. Here, however, one would have wished for a bit less nostalgia, as there was not really much about the Batista regime to wax lyrical about - something which, to be fair, the novel does not completely gloss over, but there is an undeniable tendency to view this time clouded in a romanticised haze that blurs the edges of oppression and poverty.

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love won the Pulitzer prize in 1990 - apparently Oscar Hijuelos was the first Latin writer to win it, so I suppose there is some achievement in that, but for the novel it is typical Pulitzer fare - neither really bad nor really good, somewhat literary but not too difficult, and overall distinctly mediocre. I don't (quite) regret reading the novel, but won't be in a hurry to seek out anything else by that author.
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LibraryThing member novelcommentary
Oscar Hijuelos won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. It is a is a wonderful period piece of the early 1950's, where night clubs had dance contests, men wore zoot suits, and women hoped that all the lace and garter belts and perfume would help them find the man to take care of them. "Everything was different back when; 125th Street was jumping with clubs, there was less violence, there were fewer beggars; more mutual respect between people,”
In 1949 Cesar and his younger brother leave Cuba and hit New York City to play their music and try to make it big like Tino Fuentes and their role model Desi Arnez. When in fact Desi happens to hear them play one night , he invites them to his house and to appear on his show. This helps propel the Mambo Kings to some degree of fame and the rerun of the appearance, when Cesar is 62 is the start of the narrative.
"Between the delicate-looking index and middle fingers of his right hand, a Chesterfield cigarette burning down to the filter, that hand still holding a half glass of rye whiskey, which he used to drink like crazy because in recent years he had been suffering from bad dreams, saw apparitions, felt cursed, and, despite all the women he took to bed, found his life of bachelorhood solitary and wearisome."
Hijuelos' portraits of the brothers are wonderfully drawn. Cesar Castillo, the guitar strumming womanizer whose voice and gregarious personality help the band become a big hit, and Nester, the trumpet playing tortured artist who writes 22 versions of the song Maria of my Soul. He is haunted by a lost love, even though he meets and marries Delores. "Beautiful María of My Soul.” A song about love so far away it hurts; a song about lost pleasures, a song about youth, a song about love so elusive a man can never know where he stands; a song about wanting a woman so much death does not frighten you, a song about wanting that woman even when she has abandoned you."
Their story is told in reflection as the older, overweight Cesar sits in his hotel room reminiscing about the good old days and the many women he has loved. I recommend going to YouTube and listening to the haunting Beautiful Maria of my Soul, letting that melody be the background as you embrace the adventures of these two very different brothers. Though I would caution that the lovemaking tales of Cesar are not for the easily offended, the writing does remind me of that of Junot Diaz who I am sure would acknowledge Hijuelos as a muse. After all Diaz did name his favorite character Oscar.
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LibraryThing member jasbro
Oscar Hijuelos’ 1988 novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is understandably a critically acclaimed and award-winning work of breadth and depth; of passion, compassion and empathy; and of growth and maturing. Mambo Kings follows its characters through the multiple, interwoven arcs of their lives, with “cameo appearances” crafted from, and in tune with, those characters’ time and place. Within the context of its Cuban-American ethnicity – of whole families and friends moving to the U.S. for better lives, or to escape (or avoid) Castro’s Cuba, trying to build new “American Dream” lives together in a strange land – Mambo Kings reaches far and accomplishes much of its aim. Yet Mambo Kings also manages to develop each of its principal characters in individual portraits, each with his or her own hopes and dreams, and sadness, disappointments or regrets. The novel’s framework of flashbacks and recollections of one character lends coherence to the whole, with strong flavors of Cesar Castillo’s exuberant youth and melancholy old age.

Beautiful Maria of My Soul is Hijuelos’ 2010 follow-up to Mambo Kings, which ultimately succeeds in its own right, albeit with a very different framework and focus. In developing “the rest of the story,” Beautiful Maria tells of much the same communities, the same historic context, even some of the same characters. The later novel’s scope, however, is considerably smaller: where Mambo Kings gives us breadth and depth, in sweeping arcs, flashbacks and recall, Beautiful Maria offers a slow, steady progression of time and events, full of the hopes and fears, and recurring losses, worries and griefs, of a simple – at times, even shallow – country girl, making what she can of her life with limited resources and fewer prospects. In some ways, Maria’s path seems pedestrian or predictable; but therein lies a truth born of her story's realism. Despite the aura of mystery surrounding her in Mambo Kings, and her compelling presence (even in absence) throughout that earlier work, the Maria of Beautiful Maria is no Cinderella. Any reader who approaches her story with false expectations of more Mambo Kings will likely be disappointed.

These novels are bookends of sorts, each standing on its own, but each also inevitably, inherently and inextricably connected to the other, just as Maria’s and Nestor’s love and fates are intertwined. Between them, Hijuelos has given us not one, but two novels, which – for all their similarities and differences – together offer divergent, yet complimentary views of a larger tale.

And the final, post-modern twist at the end of Beautiful Maria (no spoilers!) ultimately has a feeling of fun, a light-hearted bonus or lagniappe, like dessert at the end of a feast.
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LibraryThing member librarygeek33
I can see why this book won the Pulitzer Prize but it also was disturbing to me (although there was a reason for the disturbing parts). The macho Cuban point of view just isn't something I can relate to. This book was like looking at a piece of art by Maplethorpe. It's not pleasant but it has an effect on you. I will definitely read other titles by this author. It is an amazing snapshot of the Cuban immigrant experience of that particular time period. I wonder what Cubans feel about it's authenticity.… (more)




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