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

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz / My rating: ★★★★★

One sentence summary: Oscar is a nerd from a Dominican family with a long history and a curse.

She only said, Man, I’m glad I got to know you. And he said, I’m glad I’m me knowing you. 

Genre: Contemporary

Plot: Incredible. It links Dominican superstition, history, and several generations of one family to create an amazing tale. Oscar’s life is center stage, but his is only one of the many we follow in this book. Diaz interlocks Dominican culture, ghetto culture, nerd culture, and literary culture into a story of tensions, of regrets and heartache, of sex and violence, and of love. The novel is full of Spanish, of comic books and geeky games and Lord of the Rings references, because every language is a language that Oscar speaks. The history of the Dominican is one I had never heard, and it brought it to light in a harrowing way. This book never slows down, will break your heart and make you laugh and leave you feeling full.

Characters: Oscar, the overweight nerd who can never get a girl, no matter how many he falls in love with. Oscar is lovable, Oscar is embarrassing, Oscar is frustrating, Oscar is funny, Oscar is sweet, Oscar is pitiful, Oscar is nice, Oscar is different. Lola, my favorite, Oscar’s headstrong sister. Yunior, whom I loved and hated at the same time because Just stop sleeping around! and yet he came to inhabit all sides of Oscar’s life. Oscar’s family, his mother and the generations past that worked to bring about the fuku, that lived around it and within it. All the characters were interlocking, touched each other somehow, even when separated by generations. They were so full of fire.

Writing: The narration was a highlight of this book. It was funny, it was crude, it was somber and it was unique. Unique is a bit of an ambiguous word, but it’s not a word I often use to describe first person narration, which I find, more often than not, so easily falls flat. Half of the time the narrator is telling other people’s stories – the book is about Oscar’s life after all – and little by little we learn who the storyteller is, how it all adds up and comes together. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the writing is the Spanish woven in, Spanish that is never translated but would be an insult if it was, because it’s part of the book, not a cultural addition to make sense to white folks who may understand Doctor Who but not two words of Spanish. The writing is expressive and colorful, and not even the copious footnotes are dull.

Was I satisfied? Yes, in that good, heavy way that comes with reading a book that is a little too crazy and a little too true.

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