The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz

Posted 18 May, 2009 by Trish in Reading Nook, Review / 30 Comments

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Title: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Author: Junot Diaz
Published: Pages: 335
Genre: Literature/Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5

Well, it’s been over a week since I finished this book and I’m still trying to sort out my thoughts. This was my pick for my work book club and we certainly had more than enough material to talk about in our meeting–I didn’t even have to pull out those discussion questions! I think the general consensus was that we all more or less liked the book, but all of us had troubles expressing just how we felt about it. Yup–looks like there might be a rambly book post down below.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is about so many things and I’m not sure it is even accurate for me to say it is mostly about the brief or wondrous life of Oscar Wao. In the prologue of the book, the narrator explains fukú–a curse that traveled first from Africa to the New World and inflicted generations of families. And as he explains: “I have a fukú story too. I wish I could say it was the best of the lot–fukú number one–but I can’t. Mine ain’t the scariest, the clearest, the most painful, or the most beautiful. It just happens to be the one that’s got its fingers around my throat” (6).

So while this book is certainly about Oscar Wao and in many respects Oscar Wao is the unlikely hero of this tale, the story begins long before Oscar with his grandfather, Abelard, and his mother, Beli, in the Dominican Republic. Diaz (or more accurately the narrator Yunior) shares the history of the Cabral family curse beginning with Beli’s beautiful sister who caught the eye of the Dominican dictator El Jefe (Rafael Trujillo), Abelard’s famous last words, Beli’s exodus to New Jersey after a tumultuous adolescence, and Oscar’s eventual–well, I don’t want to say it, but the title does imply that his life is brief…

Since there’s no way to really explain this book, and because you all know how much I hate writing up summaries, I’ll skip to the good part–the rambling part. Except there are so many things to talk about with this book that I have no idea where to begin. I could talk about the narration–how for at least half the book the reader is unaware who the narrator is, and even still I’m not exactly sure why Yunior is telling the story. Yunior roomed with Oscar for a short period during their time at college and he didn’t really care for Oscar–or maybe he did but he just didn’t know how to show it. Yunior was in love with Oscar’s sister, Lola, though. I loved the narration style of this book. I felt like I was chilling with Yunior and he was telling me all about this geeky fantasy loving fat kid, Oscar, and his cursed family’s even crazier story–the tone very conversational and intimate. In many ways Yunior is “in your face” but it somehow worked for this story.

And then there’s the other stuff you’ve heard about this book–the language, the footnotes, the use of Dominican slang, the jumpy narration (Lola makes a few brief appearances as narrator), the fantasy references, the violence. It almost seems like Diaz made a big list of all the things he could throw into this book, but all of these things worked together to make an effective story (note: breaking these up into smaller paragraphs hopefully to make it easier to digest rather than one giant paragraph). The language is strong. For the most part it didn’t get to me me, but there was about 50 pages in the middle of the book where I really struggled. There was an obvious tone change during this section (when Oscar and Yunior are roommates), but once that passed I was fine again.

The Spanish didn’t bother me. The way that I look at it: the Spanish is mostly Dominican slang which means that a large majority of Diaz’s readers can’t understand exactly what is being said. I don’t think he meant for us to understand everything that was being said. To me, it was like adding texture to the writing. The footnotes were at times distracting because I would forget what was happening in the narrative, but they were fascinating. I know very little about the Dominican Republic and I was glad to learn more about the country and culture.

The violence isn’t over the top, the narration is a little confusing but manageable, and 90% of the fantasy references went straight over my head (although I was thrilled to understand the Watchmen references!). But like the Spanish, the fantasy wasn’t a distractor–it just added to the complexity of the text and some people will get it and others won’t.

And that’s the thing about this book. I think everyone will take away something different and every reading will enlighten the reader just a little bit more. The book is incredibly rich and I could certainly use a second reading of the book to pick up all of the little nuances and subtleties that I missed the first time. I think some people would get frustrated by a book like this, but I love a book that will still have me thinking about it long after the cover has been closed (I’m still thinking about that Murakami book I read in January!). I couldn’t recommend this book to everyone–especially because the language is quite strong–but it is one that I will continue to remember and think back on. Oscar is an usual character–in many ways he is a little bit irksome–but he is tenacious and I won’t easily forget him or his family’s story. I can’t say I loved it, but I liked it a lot and the more I think about it the more it grows on me.

For a balance of opinions:
~ Heather J. ~ Nymeth ~ Sheri ~ Care ~RegularRumination ~
*please let me know if I’ve missed yours by leaving the url below. I was surprised at how few returns I got when searching my google reader for reviews.

30 Responses to “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz”

  1. I saw this in Waterstones and wondered what it was about. I wondered if it was sad, as it talks about the brief life. I think I shall read it now.

  2. I agree with that your last statment, that the book grows on you the more you think about it. You already linked to my review (thanks) so I know you already know what I think. Did you get a chance to watch the videos of Junot Diaz that I posted? In that same post I noted the interesting comments he made about the way the Spanish and the Fantasy work together in the book. After hearing him speak I appreciated the book a lot more.

  3. Okay, I really only skimmed this post because I’m really looking forward to this book and don’t want to change my expectations either for the better or for the worse. You gave it a 4.5, which makes me think well of it. Agh, I have too many books I want to read RIGHT NOW. :D

  4. This book never made it to my TBR List. Even with your great review and high rating, it still doesn’t appeal to me. I’m so glad. :) Any books I can keep off the list is helpful. Tee Hee

  5. Very nice review. I read it and enjoyed it, learned a few things about the Dominican Republic thanks to the footnotes. I was a little surprised by all the award nomination it received but I am glad I read it. Thanks for an honest review.

  6. I thought you did a good job expressing your thoughts about this book, Trish. I haven’t made up my mind if I want to read this one. You sure make it tempting though.

  7. Nice review- I think you really do a great job talking about a book without giving away anything. Unfortunately, this one just has no appeal at all for me.

  8. Great review! I’ve got a copy of this, and am looking forward to reading it in the next month or so. I’m really intrigued by it now – thank you!

  9. I’ve got a copy of this on the shelf waiting for me, but this is one of those books that intimidates me. I am so seriously afraid that I’m not going to understand it, and then I’ll come away feeling like an idiot. I know how stupid this is, but I just can’t shake it. I know I really just need to dive in one of these days.

  10. *Regularrumination – Got it, thanks.

    *Scrap girl – Some of the cultural things about this book are sad, but this book isn’t a tearjerker type sad. Hope you like it!

    *Heather – I did watch part of the videos and mention that quote about fantasy/Spanish in book club—so thanks for posting them!

    *Moonrat – I’ll be very honest, I have no idea! :) Since it is marked fiction, that’s how I read it—but I do think that Diaz certainly put himself into the novel.

    *Amanda – I did like this book a lot, but it is hard for me to vocalize how I felt about it. There are some things that I didn’t love (the language), but all the pieces seemed to fit together.

    *Bermuda – I hope you like it! The best books for me are the ones that really make me think.

    *Joy – LOL! This book is not for everyone. May as well keep that TBR pile filled with books you WANT to read!

    *NovelMenagerie – Already got your link. :) I put it under Sheri—do you want me to change it to NovelMenagerie?

    *Sandra – I learned a lot about the Dominican Republic as well—surprising how little I knew about the country! I was also surprised about ll of the nominations—wish I knew a little more about why it was awarded the Pulitzer!

    *Lit Feline – Thanks, Wendy—sometimes when I have so many thoughts I have a difficult time sorting them out. This one isn’t for everyone and I don’t know if you’d like it or not—but you’ll get a pretty good feel for the book within the first chapter or so if you’re wanting to try it.

    *Lisa – thank you—I don’t like reading a lot of plot summary in people’s reviews, so I try to get down to the bottom line as quickly as possible (plus I’m rotten at doing summaries). I don’t blame you for not wanting to read this one—I have a difficult time figuring out who the target audience is (besides weirdoes like me!!) Ha!

    *Farmlanebooks – It’s a really interesting book on so many different levels—I’ll be curious what you think.

    *Debi – Oh dear!! Don’t be intimidated by this one! There are a few times where you’ll have to slow down in your reading, but the narration almost forces this (I don’t know how to explain that except when the narrator wants you to read fast, you will, and when he wants you to really sit up and pay attention you will. You know?). But, I know what you mean as I feel that way about a lot of books.

    *bkclubcare – Looks like we even rated it the same—with some deliberation! Got you linked.

  11. To me, the frequent use of Spanish was bothersome because I didn’t know what it meant the majority of the time. I would have rather have footnotes for that than the history. I don’t like just skipping over phrases over and over, and I had to do that in this book. I’m glad I read it, though I still don’t exactly know how I feel about it. :)

  12. Anonymous

    I agree with much of what you had to say, but I think you may have missed the main point. The beauty of Junot Diaz’s writing is that he believes we should know about his culture since he knows about ours. The book was not autobiographical as Diaz says himself, but instead a fictionalized account of so may of the ideas he has been struggling with. The story is compelling, which gives the reader an excuse to learn about what he doesn’t already know. This was one of the better books I’ve read in the last few months simply because of the narrative style and form, so I partly agree with you and partly disagree.

  13. I keep getting mixed messages about this one. I still don’t know. It seems I have heard that it is hard to get into as well.

    I love that there is spanish in it though, that part would be fun!!!

  14. I left a comment here a few days ago, but it seems that blogger ate it :( I hate it when that happens! Anyway, here’s what I’d said, more or less:

    I know exactly what you mean about the conversational and intimate tone. I really loved that too. And in terms of Dominican history, this was a complete eye-opener for me. Before I had no idea about the horrors that took place there.

  15. I haven’t read the novel (no time!!), but I took a short story course a few semesters ago, and we read at least two of Diaz’s shorter works. I really like his edgy style.

  16. *Terri – ah yes, I am a rambler! My favorites are books that I still think about weeks/months/years after finishing—those are the ones I always want to revisit.

    *Laura – I was able to pick up on some of the Spanish, but it didn’t bother me a whole lot. But you know I’m a lazy reader—I probably would have skipped the footnotes if they explained the Spanish!

    *Anon – I wish you would have signed your name so I don’t have to address you as “Anon.” I make no claims about what exactly this book is about except that it is about so many different things and everyone will take away something different. Thank you for your point of view; I agree that I learned so many things about the Dominican Republic that I did not know before.

    *Bethany – I can see how the reactions to this one are so mixed. I’m not sure of a definite audience for it. The Spanish is a lot of Dominican slang, so I’d be interested in how accessible it is to a traditional Spanish speaker.

    *Chris – I’ll be really curious what you think!! I was surprised to find that not too many bloggers have read it yet (that I know of).

    *Nymeth – You’re the second person to tell me that—hopefully nothing weird is going on with my blog. :-/ I really had no idea about the atrocities either. Is How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents based on Dominican women (after they’ve immigrated)? I’m interested in reading that one now.

    *Karen Beth – I’ll have to check out his short stories. Edgy is a great way to describe his style. Definitely had a big impact on how this novel is read!

  17. Trish, Debi told me she had trouble commenting on my blog too, so I think it’s a general blogger glitch. Hopefully they’ve fixed it by now! And yes, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents deals with the same history. I think that having read it not too long after Oscar Wao made me enjoy it even more. The story starts after the girls have immigrated, but it moves backwards in time, so we do get to read about their lives before they left the Dominican Republic.

  18. I really need to read this! I’ve seen so many various reviews about it, and the thing that makes it so irresistible to me is what you mentioned about every reader taking something different from the book.

  19. *S. Krishna – LOL–glad you didn’t think I was too rambly. :) I hope you like this one–it’s a really interesting read.

    *Nymeth – Grrr…problems all around. Commenting and Mr. Linky! Giving me a headache. I’ll be on the lookout for How the Garcia Girls, but I did manage to find a really cheap copy of In the Time of Butterflies the other day. Have you read that one?

    *Joanne – There is so much to think about in this book and so much left for interpretation that I do think everyone will have a different take. I hope you like it!

    *Diane – My coworker also listened to the audio. I’ve been wondering how the footnotes were handled in that version? I’d be really interested in hearing the tone of voice Yunior has throughout the novel.