Review: ‘Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love’


Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love

by Oscar Hijuelos

  • Date finished: Nov. 14, 2013
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Year: 1989
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Fall 2013, Pulitzer Prize Winners
  • Grade: A-
  • Thoughts upon reading:

First of all, let’s just get this out of the way: when I think of mambo, New York City, Latin culture and the 1940’s-50’s, I think of this:

This isn’t a terrible image to think of, as Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love tells the story of two Cuban immigrants coming to New York in the late 1940’s, looking to start a mambo orchestra and make it big. The sweaty dance halls are hard to imagine, until you remember the iconic scene from West Side Story. Just switch out the Puerto Ricans with some Cubans, and there you go.

Like I’ve said before, reading Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love was a little tiring at times. The prose is dense and repetitive, and points of view switched fluidly in the middle of chapters, with little formal introduction. It was also a surprisingly long book: Hijuelos delves deep into his characters’ lives, namely his two Cuban brothers, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, but also the girlfriends, wives and children. Time is also fluid, with most of the book happening in chronological order, though many scenes jump in and out of focus as they run through the Mambo King’s memory.

That’s because this book is first and foremost a tale of memory: the beginning of the book opens with Nestor’s son Eugenio watching his father and uncle on an episode of I Love Lucy – the pinnacle of the Mambo Kings’ heyday. He watches his father walk into Ricky and Lucy’s apartment and drink tea, watches their faces as they perform at Ricky’s club, and spends the rest of the book figuring out what went wrong and why his father wasn’t there for him now.

It’s been said that The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is primarily a story about longing, and you can’t argue with that. Depressive and melancholy Nestor longs for the woman who broke his heart in Cuba, while Cesar longs for a life of happiness, joy, women and music – even if his life seems poised to fall apart at the seams.

However, I’d also have to say that this book is also about growing old, and longing for one last chance to revisit your life, make things right, and remember what it’s like to be young and invincible one more time. It’s a touching message, and one we all can relate to, even if the colorful world of Cuban immigrants in the mid 20th century was strange and foreign to me. I can see why it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, though I have to say I’ve never read anything like it before. And you know, I think that’s a good thing.

And now, one last thing. They mention Tito Puente a lot during this book, and I can’t help but think of THIS scene when I hear his name (even if this Latin music….these dances…have by this time become a form of entertainment for rich white people…but that’s OK because it’s Dirty Dancing and I love Dirty Dancing)


One thought on “Review: ‘Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love’

  1. Pingback: 2013: A Year in Reading | Paperback Fool

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