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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Diaz

Overview: 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 fukú – 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.

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.

Janet Kolodner (02/09/15): Gail gives a wonderful summary of the book, so I will not repeat that. Unlike Gail, I fully enjoyed the book. While the Spanish words Gail writes about means it is impossible to totally understand some of the text without using a dictionary, I found this not to be a problem. Mostly, I could tell approximately what the Spanish words meant, and I found that the Spanish helped me experience the lives of the characters. About halfway through I decided to find out what some of the Spanish words actually mean. For about 20 minutes, I looked up words that I didn't know (a lot of them), and then I went back to reading without the dictionary; I had been right; I could pretty much get guessing what most of the Spanish meant. I also enjoyed the footnotes (but I am an academic). There are a lot in the beginning, but they taper off. It was interesting to me to learn about the history of the Dominican Republic from the footnotes, and I did not let them take me away from the flow of the narrative; I read them when there was change in the narrative rather than exactly when they came up in the text.

It is a sad book. It is a funny book. It is a tragic book. In some ways, the experience of the characters is universal; the Dominican mother has much in common with other single moms who have the full burden of bringing up their kids and much in common with other moms who led a very difficult life, and there is much in common, I found, between the experiences of Dominican refugees and immigrants as other immigrants. The characters were new kinds of people for me -- people I wouldn't have that much chance to meet in real life.

So don't be afraid of the Spanish and footnotes; I read it in one evening/night (over 5 or more hours) and found that I didn't want to put it down.
Rating: ****

Gail Reid: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the story of a Dominican-American teenager who by his own admission is nerdy, overweight, and obsessed with fantasy fiction. Oscar wants nothing more than a girlfriend but he lacks the most minimal social skills and believes that his life is ruled by "fuku"- a Dominican curse. Oscar's problems are not difficult to understand once we are introduced to his sister Lola, his mother Beli and his friend Yunior -- all of whom are hugely affected by their Dominican roots in spite of the life they lead in New Jersey. Lola has a wild streak but is more grounded in mainstream society. Beli, as a young rebellious woman, was chased out of the Dominican Republic by the Trujillo regime because her boyfriend the "gangster" was married to a Trujillo sister. Oscar's pursuit of the girl he loves brings the reader back to the Dominican Republic and a resolution of the curse that has followed him.

I read this book because it was the 2008 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I look forward to the selection each year as an opportunity to be exposed to new works or authors. Oscar Wao was a disappointing read. It was impossible to gain any rapport with the dysfunctional characters. Junot Diaz's style includes a constant influx of Spanish phrases. The narrative is frequently interspersed with lengthy historical footnotes which makes the flow disruptive. The assimilation of Dominican Republicans to American life is wonderfully portrayed in the Tony Award winning Broadway play "In the Heights." Unfortunately, the richness of that culture does not come across in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao because of the unrewarding characters and unappealing style.
Rating: **

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