Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

This is a tough book to review.  It is not for everyone.  Based on what I saw on Goodreads, many people love it, but I'm sure some people will hate it.  I almost abandoned it, and in truth, I did not finish it for my library book group this week -- I was even tempted to skip book group out of embarrassment.  But I am so glad that I didn't miss it, and I think I'm glad that I finished it.

Before I digress any further, here's a brief setup: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the story of a young Dominican immigrant man living in New Jersey, from about the late 1970s until the 1990s, and his family's history in the Dominican Republic under the Trujillo regime.  He is a massively overweight, science-fiction book-loving nerd who can't talk to girls and is convinced he'll die a virgin.  He lives with his rebellious sister and his mother, and it seems the family is cursed by what the Dominicans call fuku.

This was not an easy book for me to get into, because it seemed at first it was about a lonely teenaged nerd fanboy obsessed with sex, and frankly, that is not my cup of tea.  But I stuck with it for the sake of the book group -- it's supposed to be about expanding my literary horizons.

But I did stick with it, and after about 50 pages or so it got much more interesting.  The story jumps back and forth between the stories of Oscar, his sister Lola, and his mother and grandparents, between New York, New Jersey, and the Dominican Republic.  If you didn't know anything about the Trujillo dictatorship, you will before the book is over -- the book includes lots of background, mostly through footnotes.  In teeny tiny print.

The other thing that makes this book unusual is the language -- it's full of slang, both English and Spanish, lots of references in Spanish (and no glossary), and it is chock-full of the f-word.  If you are easily offended, this is not a book for you.  Plus, a lot of the book is about sex -- Oscar wants sex, and other people are having sex.  It's not horribly graphic or explicit, but it's there.  There's quite a bit of violence as well -- Trujillo was a nasty, nasty character, and that was a terrifying era.  This book is not for the faint of heart.

But I'm actually glad I finished it.  This is not my normal kind of book, and I will admit that as I began I could not help wondering how in the heck this book won the Pulitzer Prize.  I understood a lot better after the book discussion.  I was wondering how it would be received by the group, which is mostly senior ladies.  However, they're extremely open-minded, and we do have one man in the group, who also happens to be Hispanic.  I was really interested in his perspective.  I really love having a man in the group -- most book clubs are the domain of women, and having Danny always makes it interesting.  (The fact that he's brilliant and well-read may have something to do with this).

Anyway.  During the discussion, I learned why the author kept using all the Spanish words and slang with no glossary -- because he was trying to mirror the experience of an immigrant who's learning a new language and doesn't get everything.  There's a lot I didn't get, but I was able to figure out most of it from context, just as an immigrant would.  I also learned a lot about the symbolism and Dominican folklore that comes into the book.  I think it was chosen for the Pulitzer because of its style -- it reminded me a bit of Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, and how their writing styles are groundbreaking and important.  The discussion definitely inspired me to stick with the book and finish it.

I'm probably rambling by now but that's the only way I can describe this reading experience.  I can't say I loved this book, or that I would want to read it again.   But it was definitely thought-provoking and that's why I love going to book group.  Next month we're discussing The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which could not be more different from Oscar Wao.


  1. Interesting. I'm still not sure i really want to read this book, but I like the things Danny explained!

  2. I know contemporary fiction is not your thing, but I so wish you could come to our group! Too bad the timing isn't right.

  3. Like the sound of this book, thanks for the review. I'm interested to hear what you think about Guernsey Literary. I was disappointed, but I feel like I missed something! Everyone else seemed to love it.

  4. Usually, I think footnotes are disruptive, but I really enjoyed reading the footnotes in Oscar Wao. I found the story of the Mirabal sisters particularly interesting, not to mention inspiring. Great review. :)

  5. Melissa -- I actually read Guernsey Literary about a year ago and quite liked it. I wouldn't say it made a huge impact, but it was quite a charming read.

    Darlyn -- Thanks! I did like the footnotes, and now I really want to read more about the Mirabal sisters also. Julia Alvarez wrote a book about them called In the Time of the Butterflies which I've heard is good, so I want to read that.

  6. I brought this book before Christmas and I am a little worried about the Spanish words but am willing to give it a go. The reference to sex and the swearing don't bother me though.

  7. This is one I've wanted to read, but have been hesitant because of all the things you mentioned.
    It's great that you have at least one man in your group. I used to go to a book group at the library with a guy who almost always hated the book we read, but it was always interesting to hear his perspective.

  8. Jessica -- the Spanish wasn't that bad, it was pretty easy to get the gist of it from context. Even Danny, the man in our group didn't get all of it and he speaks Spanish. He did say there are online glossaries for the book.

    Shelley -- it is really nice having a man in the group. And kudos to the guy in your group for reading all those books he didn't like! I think having a man in our group keeps us from choosing too many female-centric books.

  9. I have this book sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read. I'm not sure why I got it in the first place (probably because it was a prize winner and the title). Glad to hear it is worth reading but thanks for the heads-up on the difficulty level.

  10. In the Time of the Butterflies is a good book, but really, almost prostratingly, sad.

  11. I loved Oscar Wao and yes, a lot of it was over my head. I really got caught up in the whole thing. And I didn't know about the reason for all the slang - I get it. I found the footnotes one of my favorite things about the book.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.