Magazine article The Spectator

Charring for Cuba

Magazine article The Spectator

Charring for Cuba

Article excerpt

EMPRESS OF THE SPLENDID SEASON

by Oscar Hiuelos

Bloomsbury, 16.99, pp. 342

This rich, sometimes over-ripe novel is about many things, but chiefly it is about valour. The protagonist, Lydia Espana, an exile in New York from pre-Castro Cuba, personifies this valour, engendered by selfdeception and hope, and stubbornly sustained through a life increasingly clouded by disappointments. Arrogant and ardent, Lydia is doomed to become a charlady when her waiter husband, Raoul, suffers a heart attack in his early forties. Her life of cleaning up after other people is particularly humiliating for her, since she was brought up in a prosperous household, tended by servants, in a small Cuban town of which her baker father was mayor.

Oscar Hijuelos, himself also Cuban in origin but born in the United States, has produced what is essentially a picaresque novel for at least half of its length; but instead of journeying about the world to encounter her adventures, Lydia meets them as she uses public transport to shuttle tirelessly between one New York household and another. Inevitably, her clients are far better off than she is; but also, and more importantly, they are far quirkier and each has an arresting story. Mr Malone, who has a pentagramn on his bedroom wall and crucifixes hanging upside down above the commode in his bathroom, and who eventually turns out to be a follower of Aleister Crowley, makes her feel so uneasy that eventually she hands in her notice. A wealthy foreign woman keeps two greyhounds in cages. When, overcome by compassion, Lydia releases them in the absence of their owner, they at once set about devastating the luxurious apartment, so that she flees, unpaid, never to return. An elderly Viennese female psychiatrist, once a co-worker of Freud, broods on an existence in which love has somehow always eluded her. Often, as she ministers to such people, some kind, considerate and friendly and some treating her as though she was of no more importance than a dish-cloth or a vacuum cleaner, Lydia thinks bitterly, `Soy una esclava - I am a slave.' The most durable and the most consequential of these jobs is with the princely Ospreys, who are all the things that Lydia and her family are not. Mr Osprey has not merely inherited a fortune but has nursed it into an even more magnificent one. His wife is cultivated and glamorous and, thanks to beauticians and plastic surgeons, looks perennially young. Their healthy, intelligent, well-mannered children are never any problem. Lydia, whose sexual thirst is now rarely slaked by her ailing husband, has fantasies of an affair with Mr Osprey. …

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