Empress of the Splendid Season
by Oscar Hijuelos
(Perennial, 1999)

Even though a contemporary fiction factory like Harper Collins pumps out thousands of narrative shipwrecks every year, books like Empress of the Splendid Season are islands of relief; ripe with thoughtful description and finely nuanced characters.

Empress tells the story of Lydia Espana, a once-spoiled aristocrat from pre-Castro Cuba who, exiled from her family because of her sexual proclivities, emigrates to Manhattan and finds work as a cleaning lady. Her husband, Raul, works as a waiter and suffers from a temperamental heart. The two struggle to raise their children, Rico and Alicia, amidst the violent and economically desperate conditions of 1960s Spanish Harlem. Lydia finds herself in a tenuous battle to maintain her Cuban heritage, and must come to terms with the realization that in America, she's just another member of the disenfranchised working-class, fighting daily against the devastating threat of poverty. Her children wrestle with the complexities of cultural assimilation, wavering between the rich inheritance of their Cuban relatives and the harsh, chaotic reality of New York City.

Hijuelos articulates the complex story of the Espana family with remarkable circumspection. Each character grows into a distinct figure of both strength and fallibility, woven into the patterned fabric of human emotions and relationships. Richly detailed depictions of the era's landscape and people emerge as we follow Lydia through the gilded apartments of her upper-crust clients, privy to the cositas that define their world.

As the Espana children grow, Hijuelos grapples with the problem of the émigré generation gap; Rico, during his father's funeral, reflects upon the cultural collision that defines his existence. Hijuelos exhibits an incredible universal conscience as he takes these personal moments and extends them to a universal recognition of human loss and death: "Éa great sadness descended upon him; part of the world, a curtain of identity, as it were, had been torn away." Empress of the Splendid Season, like many memorable works of literature, has that skillful flexibility that allows it to bend from quotidian specificity to a pure human resonance that all readers can relate to.