May 23, 2013

Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao 
Published: 2007, Riverhead Books
Genre: Adult Literacy Fiction
Source: Personal copy
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It's never the changes we want that change everything.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and I got off to a rocky start. I fully anticipated on loving this from the very beginning, with such a highly acclaimed author focusing on the lives of a Dominican-American family, but unfortunately that was not the case. It took time and a little patience for me to connect with the wonderfully complex and nuanced members of the de León family, as well as the rather crude narrative style, but the experience of reading this novel was worth every moment I struggled at first.

The title and synopsis suggest that this is the story of Oscar, of his brief and wondrous life, but Oscar proves to be only one of many players in this story. More than anything else, this is the story of the de
León family as a whole, of the lives and experiences of family members from the past three generations: Oscar and his sister Lola, their mother Belicia, and their grandfather Abelard. Readers witness the maturation of Oscar and his sister Lola as they grow up living in Patterson, New Jersey under the strong cultural influence of their mother and family members. Readers are also transported back to the Dominican Republic to see how Belicia's transformation into a desirable young woman leads to many bad influences, and even further back in time during Trujillo's dictatorship, where Belicia's father Abelard struggles to find a way to protect his family from el Jefe. Deftly integrating elements of a family story with historical events, contemporary struggles, and cultural significance, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a celebration of the ties that bind people together.

The eponymous character is perhaps the most unlikely protagonist one could imagine, for Oscar defies the stereotype of the Dominican-American man in every possible way. He's overweight, spends hours reading and writing works of science fiction, participates in role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, and has barely a drop of machismo in his body. Yet what he wants - more than anything - is to find love and get laid. He's a romantic at heart and the majority of his sections (as well as his life) are dedicated to the pursuit of finding his one true love. It is easy to sympathize with Oscar, but he's not the easiest character to like. At times he's a bit too self-effacing, socially awkward to an unbelievable point. But as this story chronicles Oscar's maturation, so does it also chronicles his growth into a more self-confident and assured young man.

But Oscar is not the sole focus of this narrative, and the portrayal of his family members is just as important to the story as a whole. Along with Oscar, Lola seeks meaning in her life as the two of them grow up in in the 1970s and 1980s. In many ways, Lola is a traditional teenage rebel, while Oscar epitomizes the social misfit. The significance of the Dominican culture and how it continues to be a powerful force in the de León family's lives can be seen through Belicia and Abelard's sections. Beli has had a difficult life, and, while that doesn't excuse her later harsh treatment of her children, it at least explains her actions a bit better. Her transformation from the most desirable young girl in her town in the Dominican Republic to a single mother working multiple jobs in order to raise her children is sad and yet all too easily imaginable. Abelard's section is as much about his life as it is about the time period in general: 1940s Dominican Republic, under the dictator Rafael Trujillo. Through footnotes and narrative asides, the narrator explains the difficulties that Dominicans had under Trujillo's reign, and the measures that some would take to ensure the safety of their families. Readers are able to witness both the triumphs and tragedies of these four central characters, how they affect each other, themselves, the narrator, and those around them.

Although the novel is narrated in the first person tense, Diaz does not reveal the narrator's identity for quite a while. Early on I could tell that the narrator was not Oscar, Lola, or Belicia. With an absent father and the majority of their relatives still living in the Dominican Republic, the list of potential narrators grows thin, until the narrator himself enters the story as Yunior, potential boyfriend of Lola and friend of Oscar's. Diaz's decision to have the story told through an outside perspective is an interesting one. In many ways, it works well to have a more impartial party narrating the story of the de León family. As much as Yunior claims to have known Oscar and Lola, how accurate can his portrait of this family truly be? What family doesn't keep its secrets, after all? Not only is Yunior physically distant from many of the events he relates, but he's emotionally distant as well. More than any other aspect of the novel, Yunior's narration brings to question the validity of the stories we hear, and whether the validity really matters.

A major draw of this novel for me was its focus on Dominican-American culture. One of my majors in college was Spanish, one of my best friends is Dominican-American, and I already had a brief introduction to Dominican culture through Julia Alvarez's wonderful In the Time of the Butterflies. While the focus of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is on the family members themselves, their culture is an ever-present theme. In the prologue the narrator describes the origins of fukú (a curse that the de León family blames for their misfortunes) and zafa (its couterspell), as well as a brief history of the Dominican Republic. By itself, the prologue could leave readers anticipating more of a magical realism type story, the genre that is primarily used by Hispanic authors such as Allende and Garcia Marquez, but Diaz does not ultimately take that route. Their culture (and, perhaps, family fukú) may influence the decisions that the de León family makes, but, as Yunior himself wonders, how long can we avoid blaming ourselves? Who should take responsibility for our actions? Through the constant reminder of the curse and other, smaller traces of Dominican culture and life, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao forces its readers to consider many a complex issue.

As much as The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao focuses on the difficulties people encounter in life, it is also a story about love. Romantic love as well as familial love. Much of Oscar's life is guided by his search to find love, but love also dictates the actions of his family members, from his sister Lola's decision to run away from home to his mother's choice to be with a certain man - regardless of the powerful enemies she makes - to his grandfather's determination to sacrifice all to save his family. Misfortunes may affect them all, but it is through their love that they continue to survive.

It is worth mentioning that the story is written in a rather unconventional style. Bits of Spanish phrases and dialogue pop up on pages, not italicized and generally with no definition or explanation. Most are easy enough to figure out with context clues, however, and the use of Spanish language definitely adds to the sense that there is a clear clash of cultures present within the book. The narrator also curses frequently and uses footnotes to explain both historical context and add little anedotes. Neither of these techniques make the reading experience easy necessarily, but they do help readers better understand both Yunior and the history of his people.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is literary fiction at its finest. I read with the sense that Diaz had everything meticulously planned out, from the tiniest details to the great overarching themes. It's a book that merits re-reading and, if possible, a discussion with others. I was fortunate enough to spend some time talking with some co-workers about this book, although I do wish I could discuss it again in a class setting and really be able to unravel all the minutiae that help emphasize the complexity of Diaz's writing style. Highly recommended for those who aren't afraid of crude language, who want a thought-provoking, lasting read that offers a glimpse into another culture and its history. 
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. This is such a great review. I agree -- I read this a few years ago and the unusual narrative style did take me a little while to adjust to, but then the book really won me over. I'm not a big fan of magical realism, but I love stuff like curses in books.

    This summer I hope to read This Is How You Lose Her.

    You can find me here: Jen @ YA Romantics

    1. Thanks, Jen! I'm glad I've found another fan of this book! :) In comparison to other well-known Hispanic authors, I thought the magical realism was very lightly used, almost non-existent.

      And I want to read that one too! I definitely need to read the rest of Diaz's work at some point.

  2. This book holds so much, history, a little magical realism, human desire and the bonds that tie us to where we come from- it's such an enjoyable read.

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