At day’s end, Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise delivers as an erudite vaudeville of turn-of-the-century superstars (Bram Stoker! Gladstone! Conan Doyle!) and a self-effacing swan song for a gifted novelist who, in modulating his singular voice to harmonize with those of his fabled subjects, seems to be meditating upon his own place in the pantheon.
Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise is not the equal of Hijuelos’s finest work. It is best understood as a project that will always be in progress, energized by its potential, its sections captured in the midst of being revised and arranged by a writer who knew how to keep his readers enthralled.
In many places, any sense of narrative flow is broken by Hijuelos bouncing in and out of different heads, jumping from city to city, place to place and year to year. But when he digs his fingers into something good and lets his chosen pony run a little? There's just a kind of gorgeous magic to the disparate but parallel lives he is charting.
...it's chockablock with information that educates but doesn't entertain. Hijuelos hadn't yet found a way to dramatically convey whatever it was that obsessed him about Twain and Stanley's friendship and shape it into a story distinct from the historical record. In the end, Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise is a novel that makes you appreciate — unfortunately, by its absence — the magic that animates Hijuelos' best work.
For all its pleasures, this novel does suffer from its posthumous publication. Hijuelos, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love and other novels, died in 2013. Had he lived longer, I suspect, he would have shortened the book, tightened its focus and avoided some graceless bits.
Lady Stanley’s pencil sketch that concludes the novel envisions her late husband and the American author entering Paradise together. Isn’t it pretty to think so? The power of Hijuelos’ own incisive and affectionate portraiture makes it impossible not to.
There are romances, séances, political campaigns and personal as well as professional losses in this masterful, sweeping novel that traces Stanley’s whole life and most of Twain’s, two of the fullest of the waning century.