Beautiful Maria of my Soul is, above all, a fun, summer book.
At times, Maria reminded me of the mother in The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao -- unsympathetic, one-dimensional, and living in the past -- but then at other times, principally when she's convincing herself that she loves Nestor, she seems an enchantingly hopeless romantic. So she has two sides, but the other characters don't develop and we only ever see one side of them. I almost dare to think that, like the Oscar Wao book, the author has no real sympathy for female characters. They remain too mysterious. We're seeing Maria's story not from her perspective, but from the perspective of one of her salivating admirers. That said, the prose pulls the story along nicely. In the end it's a nicely written love story in which no one has ever really loved anyone, a statement about being extracted from one's homeland and the incredible loneliness that comes with the sense of never belonging anywhere. Read from that perspective, it's a very powerful book.
I haven't read The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, although I did see the movie when it came out, so I don't know to what extent this book differs from the first book. Although the author's self-insertion in the last part of this book, complete with great reviews of the Mambo Kings and its movie, was self-indulgent, I enjoyed the way it made the last part of the book a meta-book. The song in the movie is different than the song in the "real life" of this book, the movie only showed Maria for a few minutes and she feels like a minor role in the play of life. The story starts to proliferate in all kinds of different iterations, starting to become something eternal. The characters' objections to some of the details of the story within the story made them more real to me even as the fourth wall was torn down.
I read an advance reading copy, and it was rife with type-os and unintentional mistakes in the Spanish. The rendering of the Spanish, with an English translation right after, was a little wearisome. It doesn't add anything to the story if it's that simple to translate, anyway, so just stick with the English in most cases.