The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love: A Novel

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love: A Novel

by Oscar Hijuelos


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From FSG Classics, a special twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Oscar Hijuelos's beloved Pulitzer Prize–winning novel

It's 1949 and two young Cuban musicians make their way from Havana to the grand stage of New York City. It is the era of mambo, and the Castillo brothers, workers by day, become stars of the dance halls by night, where their orchestra plays the lush, sensuous, pulsing music that earns them the title of the Mambo Kings. This is their moment of youth, exuberance, love, and freedom—a golden time that decades later is remembered with nostalgia and deep affection.

Hijuelos's marvelous portrait of the Castillo brothers, their families, their fellow musicians and lovers, their triumphs and tragedies, re-creates the sights and sounds of an era in music and an unsung moment in American life.

Exuberantly celebrated from the moment it was published in 1989, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1990 (making Hijuelos the first Hispanic recipient of the award). It was adapted for a major motion picture in 1992 and remains a perennial bestseller. The story's themes of cultural fusion and identity are as relevant today as they were twenty-five years ago, proving Hijuelos's novel to be a genuine and timeless classic.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374535834
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 12/15/2015
Series: FSG Classics Series
Edition description: Anniversary
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 297,748
Product dimensions: 8.10(w) x 5.40(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Oscar Hijuelos was born of Cuban parentage in New York in 1951 and graduated from City College with a master's in creative writing, studying under the likes of Susan Sontag, Donald Barthelme, and William S. Burroughs. His first novel, Our House in the Last World, was published in 1985. In 1990 he became the first Hispanic writer to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He is also the recipient of the Rome Prize in Literature from the American Academy in Rome, an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award, and the Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature, along with several grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He wrote eight novels which, have been translated into more than twenty-five languages. He passed away in 2013.


New York, New York

Date of Birth:

August 24, 1951

Place of Birth:

New York, New York


B.A., City College of the City University of New York, 1975; M.A.,1976

Read an Excerpt

It was a Saturday afternoon on La Salle Street, years and years ago when I was a little kid, and around three o'clock Mrs. Shannon, the heavy Irish woman in her perpetually soup-stained dress, opened her back window and shouted out into the courtyard, "Hey, Cesar, yoo-hoo, I think you're on television, I swear it's you!" When I heard the opening strains of the I Love Lucy show I got excited because I knew she was referring to an item of eternity, that episode in which my dead father and my Uncle Cesar had appeared, playing Ricky Ricardo's singing cousins fresh off the farm in Oriente Province, Cuba, and north in New York for an engagement at Ricky's nightclub, the Tropicana.

This was close enough to the truth about their real lives--they were musicians and songwriters who had left Havana for New York in 1949, the year they formed the Mambo Kings, an orchestra that packed clubs, dance halls, and theaters around the East Coast--and, excitement of excitements, they even made a fabled journey in a flamingo-pink bus out to Sweet's Ballroom in San Francisco, playing on an all-star mambo night, a beautiful night of glory, beyond death, beyond pain, beyond all stillness.

Desi Arnaz had caught their act one night in a supper club on the West Side, and because they had perhaps already known each other from Havana or Oriente Province, where Arnaz, like the brothers, was born, it was natural that he ask them to sing on his show.He liked one of their songs in particular, a romantic bolero written by them, "Beautiful Mania of My Soul."

Some months later (I don't know how many, I wasn't five years old yet) they began to rehearse for the immortal appearance of myfather on this show.For me, my father's gentle rapping on Ricky Ricardo's door has always been a call from the beyond, as in Dracula films, or films of the walking dead, in which spirits ooze out from behind tombstones and through the cracked windows and rotted floors of gloomy antique halls: Lucille Ball, the lovely redheaded actress and comedienne who played Ricky's wife, was housecleaning when she heard the rapping of my father's knuckles against that door.

"I'm commmmmming," in her singsong voice.

Standing in her entrance, two men in white silk suits and butterfly-looking lace bow ties, black instrument cases by their side and black-brimmed white hats in their hands--my father, Nestor Castillo, thin and broad-shouldered, and Uncle Cesar, thickset and immense.

My uncle: "Mrs.Ricardo? My name is Alfonso and this is my brother Manny..."

And her face fights up and she says, "Oh, yes, the fellows from Cuba.Ricky told me all about you."

Then, just like that, they're sitting on the couch when Ricky Ricardo walks in and says something like "Manny, Alfonso! Gee, it's really swell that you fellas could make it up here from Havana for the show."

That's when my father smiled.The first time I saw a rerun of this, I could remember other things about him--his lifting me up, his smell of cologne, his patting my head, his handing me a dime, his touching my face, his whistling, his taking me and my little sister, Leticia, for a walk in the park, and so many other moments happening in my thoughts simultaneously that it was like watching something momentous, say the Resurrection, as if Christ had stepped out of his sepulcher, flooding the world with fight-what we were taught in the local church with the big red doors--because my father was now newly alive and could take off his hat and sit down on the couch in Ricky's living room, resting his black instrument case on his lap.He could play the trumpet, move his head, blink his eyes, nod, walk across the room, and say "Thank you" when offered a cup of coffee.For me, the room was suddenly bursting with a silvery radiance.And now I knew that we could see it again.Mrs. Shannon had called out into the courtyard alerting my uncle: I was already in his apartment.

With my heart racing, I turned on the big black-and-white television set in his living room and tried to wake him.My uncle had fallen asleep in the kitchen--having worked really late the night before, some job in a Bronx social club, singing and playing the horn with a pickup group of musicians.He was snoring, his shirt was open, a few buttons had popped out on his belly.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 Eke 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.But I didn't know this at the time, 1 thought he was sleeping because he had worked so hard the night before, singing and playing the trumpet for seven or eight hours. I'm talking about a wedding party in a crowded, smoke-filled room (with boltedshut fire doors), lasting from nine at night to four, five o'clock in the morning, the band playing one-, two-hour sets. I thought he just needed the rest.How could I have known that he would come home and, in the name of unwinding, throw back a glass of rye, then a second, and then a third, and so on, until he'd plant his elbow on the table and use it to steady his chin, as he couldn't hold his head up otherwise.But that day I ran into the kitchen to wake him up so that he could see the episode, too, shaking him gently and tugging at his elbow, which was a mistake, because it was as if I had pulled loose the support columns of a five-hundred-year-old church: he simply fell over and crashed to the floor.

Reading Group Guide

About the Book
"The Mambo Kings" are two brothers, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, who flee from Cuba in 1949 to reinvent themselves in the burgeoning Cuban music scene in New York City. The flamboyant Cesar, with his unquenchable thirst for women and drink, couldn't be more different from the quiet and melancholic Nestor, who spends his life pining away for an unrequited love he left behind in Cuba. While Cesar seduces legions of women, Nestor writes, and rewrites 22 times, the sad love song "Beautiful Maria of My Soul" in a futile attempt to conjure his lost love. Together, they form the core of a mambo band that finds relative success in the dance halls of New York, even touring as far as the Midwest with their act. But the height of their fame comes when Desi Arnaz hears them play their hit song, "Beautiful Maria of My Soul," and hires them to perform on the I Love Lucy TV show. The Mambo Kings' moment of fame is short lived, however. When the musical tastes of the country move on and the band dissolves, and Nestor dies in a freak automobile accident, Cesar spirals into an alcoholic depression. A temporary job as a building superintendent becomes a twenty-year career and the mythically virile Cesar finds himself an old man long past his prime. The story of their lives is told in flashback from the perspective of the aging Cesar, quietly drinking himself to death in the Hotel Splendour as he listens to an old Mambo Kings record and remembers the songs he's sung and the women he's loved. As the seminal moment in the Mambo Kings' lives, their performance on the I Love Lucy show, reappears on rerun after rerun throughout the novel, their televised appearance subtly transformsinto an evocative and haunting image of a past world that is long gone.

Topics for Discussion

  • Why do you think Hijuelos would endow Cesar with such exaggerated sexuality? Why does he stretch the limits of believability? Is he satirizing or celebrating traditional Latino machismo?

  • What role does the I Love Lucy show play in the lives of the Castillo brothers? What is the effect of its frequent recurrence throughout the novel? Does the emotional resonance of the episode change over the course of the novel? How so?

  • The novel appears to be a series of temporally disconnected vignettes remembered by a dying Cesar Castillo. And yet there are times when the novel "loses" the sense that the events it is portraying are Cesar's memories. Why do you think Hijuelos employs such a loose structure for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love? Does the lack of a traditional plot structure serve the subject matter? How so? What insights are provided into Cesar's character by the use of such a non-linear structure?

  • What do the two brothers sacrifice by coming to America? What have they each left behind in Cuba? What role do memories of their homeland play in their lives in America? Which brother is best able to leave their past behind? Which brother best assimilates in the U.S.?

  • What is each of the brothers' relationship to the American dream? Do they achieve it? To what degree? How does the American dream fail them? What does the pamphlet, Forward America, mean to Nestor?

  • Is Nestor a good father? Is Cesar? What ideas of fatherhood were passed down to the brothers from their father? How would you characterize their relationship to their father?

  • Do you think The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is a tale specific to Cuban immigrants, or is it applicable to all immigrants? Or to all Americans of that generation? What aspects of the story transcend the Cuban immigrant experience? Which are unique to Cuban Americans?

  • What is the role of women in Cesar's life? Why does he have sex with so many? Does he love any of his sexual partners? Is Lydia an exception? Why does she seem to dominate his memories? Why doesn't Cesar ever make love to Delores?

  • Throughout the novel are occasional footnotes with historical details. Who is the voice of these footnotes? Hijuelos? Cesar? Eugenio? How did the footnotes affect your reading of the novel? Why do you think Hijuelos employs this device? About the Author: The son of Cuban immigrants, Oscar Hijuelos was born in New York City in 1951. He received a B.A. from New York's City College, where he studied writing under Donald Barthelme. Before he became a full-time author, Hijuelos endured a series of odd jobs: raising insects in Wisconsin, selling shoes in Macy's and writing ads that appeared in New York City subway cars. His first novel, Our House in the Last World, won him the American Academy of Arts and Letter's 1985 Rome Prize, enabling him to spend a year in Italy and begin his second novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. This was followed by The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O' Brien, Mr. Ives' Christmas, and The Empress of the Splendid Season. Hijuelos lives in New York City.

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    Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    This novel was simply a joy to read. The most obvious theme would be music, but this also very much a book about family, about memory and loss, and about love and sex. It is every human experience packed into one busy, beautiful, and colorful novel. The tale of the very different but equally fascinating Castillo brothers and their struggles to make a happy life for themselves in New York-- while making peace with their past in Cuba--is one the most magical I have ever read. The story grabs you within the first few pages and transports you back in time. It's very easy to read this novel and get lost in all of its wonderful detail of life in 1950's New York. The story is written in a charming, humorous, sometimes sad, and sometimes explicit way, and will stay with you long after you've finished reading it.
    spounds on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    A novel about passion, life, music and sprited Cubans... what could be better! The novel takes you on a whirlwind of emotions as you relive the lives of these musicians with a colorful new york backdrop. The book moves quickly at times, but drags on and on at others. There is not much dialogue and it may become tedious to read, however the stories are thrilling and heartbreaking all at once. The ending was slightly depressing and somewhat disapointing, but how else could it end?
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    Wonderful and entertaining story of the Mambo Kings. What a difficult life each had, yet there was such a bond of love and devotion that is almost unreal. Full of culture, politics, and unrest this is an eventful read that is entertaining, riveting, and full of character development.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    This is a story of the whorlwind life of two brothers who live for music. Their struggles, partying, and passions consume this book and make it emotional and full of cultural Latin America. A recommended read if you want something a little different!
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is a wonderful and passionate novel. It is a look inside the heart of a culture that has added much to it's adopted country. I grew up with many expatriot Cubans and pieces of Cesar Castillo could be found in all of them.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    The best novels seem to be able to take the reader to worlds that they may never get to see. In 'Mambo Kings Play Songs Of Love,' we are taken to the Cuban-emigre community of New York City, particularly the mambo craze of the 40's and 50's, culminating in the Castillo brothers' appearance as Ricky Ricardo's cousins on 'I Love Lucy.' This gives the brothers lives that they could never even dream of back in their native small Cuban town. What makes the novel really remarkable is the ability to transcend the usual stereotypes of the 'Latin Lover,' which Cesar seems to be early in the novel, or the bitter Cuban emigre, that brother Nestor can be sometimes. Instead, we see both brothers affected deeply by life, love, and loss that makes itself manifest in the vibrant forms of mambo. As the novel concludes, we the reader have also felt life, love and loss, and no novel could acheive better. My only complaint might be that this novel should come with a soundtrack. (I cannot comment on the effectiveness of the film's soundtrack--I'll leave that to others).
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I can not believe that this book won a Pulitzer Prize. It is borderline pornographic and recants the story of two brothers whose lives were spent womanizing and drinking and to a small extent making music. It drones on and on and yet none of the characters are developed. It is disgraceful how it portrays Latin-American society and dwells on Desi Arnaz as if he were the pinnacle of achievement for Cuban-Americans. If this was the best they could find in 1990 it would have been better to issue no award!