In case you, one of my two followers (hi Mom!) were anxiously concerned about the lag between posts, allow me a moment to explain myself. You see, I have trouble with not finishing books. Even if instinctually I’m not really down with what’s going on, if I’m not feeling a connection or a vibe, even if I’m kinda bored, even if every time someone asks me about it I begin with an “ughhh” before tumbling into a litany of explanations why I WANT to like it and am trying to give it an honest chance (but we both know I’m lying)…I will force myself through it. Even if it takes months, because I have a real problem not finishing something once I’ve started. At times it ultimately ends up being a rewarding experience, but other times I finish the last page, close the book, think “meh” and move on with my life. Books I don’t like are my Everest. You just can’t give up once you’ve made it to a certain point (or do people give up on Everest a lot?). Especially the critically-acclaimed ones that win Pulitzer prizes for being “genius”, “giddily glorious” and “a joy to read” (ref). Knowing this praise to be theoretically true but still not being able to muster up the same enthusiasm, I end up feeling like that girl at the dinner party that missed the punchline of the highbrow joke (and nods on approvingly anyways).
Enter The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. This book is about a boy whose initially promising life is inexplicably fraught with tragedy that evolves a magnetic child into a tragic, virginal, overweight nerd. This downfall is attributed to a Dominican curse, or fukú, that has haunted his family for generations. The narrative spans across nations and decades – from Oscar’s grandfather’s time during the height of the Trujillo dictatorship in the mid-1940s Santo Domingo, RD to its manifestation throughout Oscar’s daily life in modern-day Paterson, New Jersey, and back again. I’ll just break it down as simply as I can (for a very difficult-to-review book):
You learn a LOT about Dominican Republic history and culture, and its trickle down into the States through diaspora. A lot of these tidbits are explained through (at times exhaustingly) long footnotes, and the other half was garnered through the act of reading with the book in one hand and my iPhone’s Wikipedia app in the other. (Leaving no hands left for wine – I know.) Anyways, I feel more informed about a culture I previously had very little knowledge.
Second pro is the presence of strong, dynamic female characters. They’re fiery, usually super hot, and full of unwavering resolve. Unfortunately most (if not all) of them are cheated on, abandoned, subjected to physical and sexual abuse, or at the very least, widowed by the men of the story. The male characters factor into two categories: pathetically romantic/tragic martyrs (Oscar) or machismo womanizers and often woman-abusers (pretty much everyone else).
And the highlight for me was the many, MANY Lord of the Rings references, which as a not-so-closet nerd, I appreciated immensely and through with found my deepest personal connection to the author (Junot Diaz). They’re alluded to so subtly at times that I was able to redeem myself at my imaginary dinner party and bring something new to the table.
Meandering, uncategorizable plot. There’s bits and pieces of haunting realism mixed in with supernatural allusions. The first part lags, and while part two luckily warms up – it then feels like a sprint to the finish line (which I felt was a wholly anticlimactic ending).
Depressing. Everyone is kind of just fucked for the whole story. I’m not ruining it for you – the title alone describes the hopelessness of Oscar’s situation. You spend most of the novel just feeling bad for half the characters and pissed off at the other half, for a myriad of reasons, and not in a redeeming way.
So, soooo much Spanish. Not in the kind of intriguing, ethnic authenticity way but in the needed-Google-translate-to-get-through-half-the-dialogue way. And sometimes I was too fatigued to look up the translations and would end up skipping over full sentences. This is probably the main reason why I likely didn’t get as much out of this story as a native Spanish speaker might. Who knows, there might be some magical hidden element that flew right over my head.
In conclusion…if you’re really into Dominican Republic history and culture, if you speak fluent Spanish slang, if you like strong female characters who are constantly getting the short end of the stick by either disappointing or tragic males, if you like mildly bumming yourself out over hopeless fictional situations, this is the book for you. For me, I’ll stick with my “meh” and move on.