About the book
Title: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Author: Junot Diaz
Edition: E-Book, 339 pages
Published: Riverhead, 2007
Genre: Adult, Contemporary, Historical Fiction, Magic Realism
My Rating: 3/5
Challenge(s): COYER, Diversity on the Shelf, Dive into Diversity
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Blurb: Things have never been easy for Oscar, a sweet but disastrously overweight, lovesick Dominican ghetto nerd. From his home in New Jersey, where he lives with his old-world mother and rebellious sister, Oscar dreams of becoming the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the Fuku - the curse that has haunted the Oscar's family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still waiting for his first kiss, is just its most recent victim. Junot Diaz immerses us in the tumultuous life of Oscar and the history of the family at large, rendering with genuine warmth and dazzling energy, humor, and insight the Dominican-American experience, and, ultimately, the endless human capacity to persevere in the face of heartbreak and loss. A true literary triumph, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao confirms Junot Diaz as one of the best and most exciting voices of our time.
ReviewDespite the title, this novel is not about just one single character. In fact, it follows the story of not only Oscar but also many of his family members and his best friend. Each character lead their own unique life that had their moments, but at times were hard to connect to and not always understood.
The book, partially set in America and partially the Dominican Republic, took place during the rise, reign and fall of Rafael Trujillo, a former dictator of the latter. The Trujillo Era lasted around 30 years, starting in the 1930s, and was the formidable and hapless backdrop to the life of Oscar and his family. As I previously mentioned, the story followed not only Oscar, but also parts of his sister Lola's life, his mother's lifes as well as his best friend's. Oddly enough, whilst most of the book was told from the perspective of his best friend, Yunior (who called himself "the Watcher" and adopted the role of the narrator), Lola (his sister) told her story from her own perspective in first person as well. I'm not entirely sure why this was done, Lola was never introduced as the narrator so I found it somewhat confusing and unnecessary. Maybe the reasoning went right over my head.
This book was deeply ingrained in the Trujillo Era and Dominican culture. It utilised a plethora of Spanish idioms and words. This helped solidfy the character's identity and their connection with their ethnicity and nationality. It made them real. I don't know how many of you have read a book from the point of view of a character living in a foreign country or of a certain ethnicity and then never hearing about that country or culture ever again, but this certainly was not the case for Oscar Wao. Maybe to an extreme. Many of the numerous number of analogies and references drawing from Dominican culture went way over my head. At times I found it hard to understand exactly what had been said (I'm talking full Spanish phrases or sentences with no translation). One may argue that this isn't crucially important as I still understood the events of the book (I hope), the type of characters introduced and it did truly emerse me in their community, but, I still found it frustrating to not know what a character had said or meant at points throughout the book. It set the novel back for me a bit. There was the occasional footnote for the more obscure references, but even then I don't think this would have been enough for a reader (not me necessarily) that would have wanted to understand every reference made in this novel. They would need to read Diaz's work next to a Spanish dictionary and have Wikipedia pulled up on their computer.
Though the characters' life were definitely worth talking about I had trouble connecting to all of them. Oscar was my favourite of them all, he was the kindest and his hopeful wishes and dreams were sweet, albeit somewhat desperate and pityful at times. Lola and Beli were both strong and independent female characters but made decisions or formed opinions that I didn't agree with. Both women were very headstrong and driven (like mother, like daughter) but Lola too impulsive and reckless, Beli too closed minded and bitter in her older age. The back story that was slowly revealed regarding each of these characters was intersting and at times horrific. To an extent it helped me understand why they were such a way but still left me torn on whether I liked them or not. Unfortunately I didn't like Yunior that much either. He seemed like an alright guy at the start, trying to help Oscar out, but out of all the characters I'd say he accomplished the least and his story was definitely the most bland. I understand why Diaz chose him as a narrator, he fit in with the lives of the other characters well, but I wish he made him more likeable. All these characters were extremely flawed which made them seem more realistic, but as a trade-off not as easy to connect to. Of course I'm not saying I don't have flaws (I definitely do), but I just didn't find their personal struggles relatable.
The novel did an excellent job at revealing the oppression and tyrannical forces of the Trujillo government during their reign. When I first picked the book up, I had little to no idea what it was actually about, and was surprised to find it so wrapped up in the politics of the times. It is one of those books that teach you a lot about a particular period in history. One of the benefits of reading a great historical novel. I can see it being studied in classes or by individuals looking for greater insight into this period of time. But beyond the politics, it was also a story about the endurance of the human spirit. Characters experienced devestating loss, heartbreak, humiliation, physical abuse, ostracization and more, all whilst still holding onto straws of hope, the warmth of love or an europhic memory. Upon reflection, despite this book not being a favourite of mine and at times difficult to digest, the main message is beautiful and meaningful.
All that being said, this book is definitely not for everyone. I would recommend it for those looking for a dramatic but realistic read that follows the story of a broken family and each member's quest in discovering their place in the world, or for those interested in a historical fiction deeply immersed in Dominican culture. I personally don't even see myself re-reading it any time soon (though maybe when I'm older) but I definitely will be checking out more of Diaz's work, I have This is How You Lose Her sitting on my shelf.