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The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love

(Mambo Kings #1)

3.68  ·  Rating details ·  11,668 ratings  ·  524 reviews
It's 1949. Two young Cuban musicians make their way up from Havana to the grand stage of New York. It is the era of the mambo, and Castillo brothers, workers by day, become by night stars of the dance halls, where their orchestra plays the lush, sensuous, pulsing music that earns them the title of Mambo Kings. This is their moment of youth—a golden time that thirty years l ...more
Paperback, 407 pages
Published 1990 by Penguin Group (first published 1989)
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Kyle I'm about 180 pgs in and so far I'm not impressed. The two main characters are womanizers, sexist, and pretty boring in my opinion. Nestor is overly s…moreI'm about 180 pgs in and so far I'm not impressed. The two main characters are womanizers, sexist, and pretty boring in my opinion. Nestor is overly self-pitying and Cesar is such a flat Don Juan character. The writing style itself is good (apart from a few egregious sexual descriptions such as "they were sitting out on a pier by the sea necking, the head of his penis weeping semen tears") but the plot and characterization is paper thin so far. If the panel of Pulitzer judges wasn't a bunch of old dudes in 1990 I'd be shocked.(less)

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As the weather heats up it is easy to envision oneself on a beach with a rum and Coke in hand. The preferred beverage in Cuba before Castro's take over, rum invokes images of Havana as a city teeming with night life and rivaling Miami as the gateway to Latin America. It is with this sensuous imagery at hand that I selected Oscar Hijuelos' Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love as the next book in my ongoing Pulitzer challenge. The first Hispanic to win the award, Hijuelos' steamy book transports its rea ...more
Apr 24, 2014 rated it really liked it
A plump, juicy, sexy tropical fruit of a novel!

Its immediately evident why it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize; as a matter of fact, it comes from a proud line of family sagas-- all of them conjoined fatefully with the history of our nation. The Castillo Bros. ("castle" siblings) are the Kings of their music and major purveyors of the Cuban-American Zeitgeist. Of course, the story is tragicomic... sad but not in a completely unfamiliar way. Yes, this one seems to have inspired later Pulitzer winne
This book was so sexual. I mean, as an experiment, I turned to four random pages after finishing it, and sure enough - all four pages, from three different character perspectives, were full of sexual description. I know this can make or break a book for some, so I thought I’d state that up front. However, I’m not sure I’d call it objectification, exactly. The main character is ruled by lust: a lust for music, women, alcohol, social vibrancy, and notoriety. His motto could be “Too much, too fast, ...more
May 04, 2007 rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: Apparently, the Pulitzer committee
I cannot BELIEVE this book won a Pulitzer. I bought it because of the shiny red cover with the big silver medal-looking sticker on the front (yes, that is how I judge books). The Cuban history/living in New York as a Cuban/music scene perspective was interesting, but it was overshadowed by the long, long, LONG woe-is-me sad-sack self-destructive fatalistic characters who were, for the most part, unlikable and unrelatable, and the pages and pages of sex. Not sexy sex; DH Lawrence this is not. It' ...more
Olive Fellows (abookolive)
DNF - So disappointing. An extremely engaging six page intro leads into a choppy, entirely sex-focused story that fails to develop atmosphere or nostalgia the way the author intends. It felt like being stuck at a bar next to an old drunk dude wanting to tell you every detail of his life story: how he used to be a musician and slept with just about every chick in NYC at the time. Bully for you, guy. Can I leave now?
Michael Finocchiaro
I did not have big hopes going into The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, I was hoping to be surprised. Unfortunately, there were only moments of surprise, but not enough for this one to vault over the three-star mark. It beat out Billy Bathgate for the 1990 Pulitzer and as I have not yet read that book, I have to assume it was mediocre and as there were no other runner-ups, that year must have been a downer literary speaking. Maybe they should have taken a closer look at Get Shorty or Hocus Pocus ...more
Algernon (Darth Anyan)
Apr 20, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2015

Looking at her, Nestor felt faint-hearted: she was more beautiful than the sea, than the morning light, than a wildflower field, and her whole body, agitated and sweaty from her struggles, gave off an aromatic female scent, somewhere between meat and perfume and ocean air, that assailed Nestor's nostrils, sank down into his body like mercury, and twisted in his gut like Cupid's naughty arrow. He was so shy that he couldn't look at her anymore, and she liked this, because men were always looking
Anne  (on semi-hiatus)
Aug 09, 2020 rated it did not like it
Shelves: audio, pulitzer, 2020, nyc
I did not realize that I was listening to an abridged audio version of this novel until after 3 hours of listening when it came to an abrupt end. "Abridged" was not written anywhere when I looked it up at my library nor on the copy I borrowed. I'm not even sure I should count it as having "read" it. Also, the narrator was a surprisingly poor choice. He sounded like he was having an asthma attack while reading so I heard every heavy intake of his breathe for 3 hours.

I am giving this novel 2 stars
May 25, 2007 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I guess there was a plot. But I think it was all a thinly veiled cover for writing about an old man's penis.

Seriously. Every page includes some reference to this horny old man's sexual escapades. It's gross. And a little depressing. Which is...provocative. I guess.

EDIT: I redacted my initial hatred-filled review. I might even consider re-reading this, from a non-sophomoric* perspective.

*I was a sophomore in high school when I first read this and hated it...
Like clockwork, highly viscous, graphic coitus every 3-5 pages. Give that book The Pulitzer Prize!
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 27, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This book is nostalgic, exotic, erotic and narcotic. It is a beautiful book and I have returned to it several times and each time I am completely swept up emotionally by it. With mere words on a page, the author creates the melodies of the Mambo era, the smells of rural Cuban cane fields, the sweat of a dance hall, the swelter of a New York City summer. The two main characters, Cesar and Nestor love in completely different, but totally compelling, ways. For Nestor, love is an ideal, out of reach ...more
Nov 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: pulitzer-fiction
This Pulitzer winning story of Cesar, the Mambo King, and his Cuban/Cuban American family was compelling although the narrative timeline was unnecessarily haphazard. The story bounces around a lot. Valid criticism has been made of the constant focus on Cesar’s penis and sexual conquests. ‘Come on now let’s move along’ is what I kept thinking. The superficial treatment of women is also a common theme. These are the three reasons that I can’t rate the book as a masterpiece or at least five stars. ...more
Sep 10, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
The main character in this book is an old guy drinking in a hotel room, and (to its credit, I guess) the book is a lot like being in a hotel room with an old guy: stories from his bygone youth, a few central events repeated again and again in different lights. I kept wanting to get up and say "Welp, look at the time! Gotta go, OK bye", and then a new yarn would begin, and next thing I knew another couple hours/hundred pages would be gone, and then eventually the guy dies and the book's over and ...more
Joy D
In 1949, brothers Cesar and Nestor Castillo leave Havana, Cuba and make their home in New York. They are musicians who experience a brief brush with fame with a song written by Nestor to an idealized love interest. They catch the attention of fellow Cuban Desi Arnaz and make a cameo appearance on the I Love Lucy show. It covers the brothers’ childhood in Cuba and Cesar’s life into his sixties.

The first half of the book tells a story of contrasting personalities – Cesar is the flamboyant lead sin
Book Concierge
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 M
May 13, 2019 rated it it was ok
Through the life of one man, a Cuban immigrant to New York in the 1950s who knew momentary success as part of a Latin band, this book recreates an era. If this is an accurate depiction of a time and place, it was an awful way to live, vapid lives spent in a drug and alcohol haze, obsession with recreational sex devoid of any real commitment, the complete objectification of women as sex objects or servants. The book was far too long, far too repetitive. Had 90% of the mention of pubic hair, nippl ...more
May 24, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I tried to like this book. Partly because I find the Latin music sub-culture of the 50s a fascinating topic and partly because I do think Hijuelos has a fine style of writing. However it is simply too repetitive and uninvolving. I guess I'm supposed to like Cesar and Nestor but I never really find out much about them except they are talented musicians (yeah, I got that part in the first ten pages) and that they are good in bed. I just expected more when someone takes the time to write a full nov ...more
Jul 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
Love is so strong it can ultimately destroy. An aging musician reflects back on his glory days and invites the reader to experience life with sound and flavor and color.

Two Cuban brothers and musicians play Latin neighborhoods of New York City in the early 1950s and, with the help of Santaria, get their break when they appear on the "I Love Lucy Show." (Desi Arnaz is a character in the book.) The novel seems improvisational, like the music itself, as characters dance the cha-cha in meat lockers
David Lentz
Jun 11, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Oscar Hijuelos is a truly gifted writer who makes a uniquely American experience and era of music come alive with a passionate honesty for which he is worthy of great credit. One deeply feels the alienation of the brothers in New York where they search for their Cuban heritage and can never get beyond their longing for their lost country. There is an emptiness, a painful longing that can never be filled except by alcohol, music and love. They are trapped within the machismo prevalent in their he ...more
Jan 28, 2008 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: People with more knowledge of the mambo than I possess.
Shelves: pulitzer-winners
After reading this, I couldn't help feeling that I never understood the main character, despite having gone through every significant episode of his life. I suppose it would have affected me more if I were familiar with the mambo culture; perhaps I simply don't have the rhythm this book requires.

This is my first experience with Hijuelos, and I find myself wondering whether he's always so sex-obsessed. There's nothing wrong with sex in a novel, especially if it's well-written, but there are othe
Jun 09, 2008 rated it did not like it
At least two or three times he mentions the man's 'thick tongue' in describing a kiss. Weird.

If you like to read horrible books that won big prizes (Pulitzer), read this one.
Pep Bonet
I'm sorry, Óscar, hombre, but I had many pains with you. I had been longing to read your book for a long while. I had you in my list of American Hispano authors to read. I had already seen some reviews which were not too positive, but still. And I must say they were right. The book is longish, repetitive. A couple of ideas extended to become a long book. I feel I read the same sentences several times. Anyway, with the story coming back again all the time and all the descriptions of the fabulous ...more
Leo Walsh
Jun 02, 2015 rated it really liked it
An interesting meditation of life, family and mortality -- but told by a garrulous 62-year-old guy drenched in whisky and smoking a Havana cigar reminiscing. And I enjoyed it.

It tells the unflinching story of two brothers from Cuba, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, who come to New York seeking their fame and fortune as mambo musicians. The brothers are young, poor and, like all young people, obsessed with sex and partying. It was amazing to watch the brothers grow as the novel progresses, especially
The real strength of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love lies in its language. So beautifully written that it is both mesmerizing and heartbreaking, it perfectly re-creates the world of Spanish Harlem in the late 1940s and 1950s. Two brothers, Cesar and Nestor Castillo make their way from Cuba to New York to begin a new life as musicians and eventually start a band called the Mambo Kings.

The story is told retrospectively mainly by Cesar when he is an old man drinking h
Mar 14, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Being Cuban-American myself, I was eager to read this book. I struggled with it. I think it was because Mr. Hijuelos writing style is not for me. Maybe fictional memoirs are not for me. There were a few interesting parts, but for the most part it was very slow and dragged on. How many pages does it take for me to understand that Nestor was lovesick over Maria? Also, I would have to say that not all Cubans have sex on their minds 24/7. I think that Cubans are very passionate people and like to ro ...more
Lisbeth Solberg
Yeah, it's about excess, but it's a bit...excessive. ...more
Nov 14, 2009 rated it liked it
A once-famous Latin musician, Cesar Castillo, famous more for the number of women he bedded than for the number of songs he produced, holes up in a hotel and dredges up the 62 years of his life filled with sex, despair, rum and mambo ( there was nothing much else), while drinking himself to death. That pretty much sums up this book.

In the process however, we get vivid glimpses of life in Cuba before Castro, of Hispanic immigrants struggling to make it in New York City, of passion, of the fragmen
Aimee Jackson
Nov 22, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: pulitzer-prize
I really wanted to like this book, but I just could never summon sympathy or interest in the main character, Cesar. This is a rich and sorrowful book, filled with longing, regret, heartache, and loss. The depiction of Latino life and culture could have been exceptional, but was ruined by the never-ending stream of machismo and male sexuality. And the repetitive telling of the 'I Love Lucy' scene made it seem that I was reading the same story over and over. I get that it was a significant event i ...more
Jun 29, 2018 rated it it was ok
Really Pulitzer committee? Really?
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Oscar Hijuelos (born August 24, 1951) is an American novelist. He is the first Hispanic to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Hijuelos was born in New York City, in Morningside Heights, Manhattan, to Cuban immigrant parents. He attended the Corpus Christi School, public schools, and later attended Bronx Community College, Lehman College, and Manhattan Community College before matriculating into and

Other books in the series

Mambo Kings (2 books)
  • Beautiful Maria of My Soul

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