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

imagedbcgiFuku. Call it bad karma, bad luck, legend, curse, or a Dominican ‘F-you’, but the family in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz cannot get away from it.

The family is doing a balancing act between two cultures. Oscar is an obese, sci-fi loving, nerdy teen living in New Jersey with his mom (who fled the Dominican Republic as a young adult) and his brilliant volatile sister, Lola. He wants nothing more than to be understood and to someday lose his virginity. He has high hopes for getting a girl to talk to him in college, but alas nothing changes there and the nerdy boy becomes a broken-hearted, socially awkward man when a girl he idolizes wants to be “just friends”. Fuku has followed his mother from the islands to New Jersey- mom has breast cancer, Oscar can’t get laid, and Lola’s relationships are doomed.

However, the book isn’t really about Oscar or his tragic family so much as it is about politics in the Dominican Republic, a place where you can get the snot beaten out of you for making a joke, where falling in love with the wrong person can get you killed, where defending your daughter from being raped by a public official can land you in jail for 18 years. No wonder the people believe in Fuku. How else to explain the atrocities inflicted on them by a corrupt government and a treacherous regime?

The book skips around from present day to the past. There are many fascinating stories being told, which gives a solid foundation and back story to Oscar and his family.

Let’s talk about footnotes. I HATE THEM anywhere outside of a research paper, and this book has a ton of them. They were informative and interesting, sometimes funny, yet lengthy, disruptive and annoying to me.

The narrator of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao speaks in a hip, edgy ghetto voice peppered with tons of slang and expletives in both English and Spanish. It was a powerful, interesting voice, but I have to admit that my white bread suburban soccer mom ears didn’t catch all of it. As someone said in the comments HERE, I had to let the book and it’s language wash over me, and while there were words on every single page that I didn’t know- Spanish words, Dominican place names, cultural references, and many English words, too- I believe I caught the gist of the book.

The narrator, Yunior, is himself a character in the book (my favorite character, actually), but doesn’t become a part of the story until about halfway through. He tries to help Oscar socially, but when you are cursed, who can really help you? Oscar is who he is.

So. Did I like this book? I did. It was really different and I can safely say that I’ve never read anything like it. It is powerful. It is deep. It made me feel ignorant and insulated in my little American bubble. Would I recommend it? Absolutely.  But for another take on it, see Sheri’s review from A Novel Menagerie HERE.  She’s just joined my real life book club and we’ll be discussing it next weekend.

Here’s a video of author Junot Diaz at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, talking about Oscar (totally entertaining and worth watching if you’ve read this book or if you intend to):

Junot Diaz is a professor at MIT and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in 2008.

Discussion questions for reading groups can be found HERE.

16 Responses

  1. I’ve been eyeing this one for a while. It sounds intense- and interesting. Thanks for a great review.

  2. You’re right – footnotes can be very distracting.

  3. I enjoyed what I read of this book – about half of it I’d guess. I liked the footnotes, and I wish a lot more books had foot notes. In the end, I didn’t finish the book becuase I didn’t want to devote the time the book deserved.

  4. I’m so glad you persevered! It’s one of those strange books that you like even better after you’re done reading it when you have time to reflect on it. It’s definitely not for everyone, but worth the effort if you’ve got the stamina.

    As for the footnotes, well, sometimes I liked them and sometimes I hated them enough to skip them. Since I had ZERO idea about DR history, I needed all the help I could get.

    I suspect, however, the complexity of this book will produce a good number of doctoral dissertations as the years progress– it’s that important. It’s a treasure trove of historical, political, and socio-cultural themes.

  5. Oh good, I have this one on the shelf. I’m glad you liked it.

  6. I’ve been meaning to read this for a while now… but I think that I, too, will be annoyed with the footnotes. I would still like to try, eventually, so thank you for the review!

  7. LOVED that video – it definitely gives insight into the book – this is a must read for me this year

  8. Yeah… but, did you pick up the narrator changed to Lola in one of the sections of the book? That confused the crap out of me.

  9. I kind of liked the footnotes, but that would be my inner (maybe not so inner) geek showing through ;o). But like you, the Spanglish, or whatever it was, drove me a bit batty in the beginning. I kept trying to get BabelFish to translate it for me (and, of course, since it was dirty and interesting slang, it would not ;o)). Overall, I liked it, too. I’m glad it was a book club pick and I got to discuss it with others (over wine, even better). I think that made the whole book more interesting for me. Thanks for embedding the video, that was great and I think it explains a lot.

  10. I really enjoyed “Wondrous Life…” Some folks in my book club didn’t enjoy it as much as I did. Some were annoyed by all the footnotes and others enjoyed the footnotes more than the main narrative.

  11. I bet discussion of this book is split in your book group (I haven’t yet read it, but based on the comments here and the other reviews I’ve read, my guess is that some people will be too irked by the footnotes!)

    I don’t have this on my shelf, but I’m sure I’ll read it … eventually … 🙂 I’m willing to try the format, footnotes and all!

  12. I’m about half way through The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and I must admit I am not enjoying this book. I do however like Diaz’s writing style, it is very innovative. I will finish the book and maybe I will grow to like it, I hope so.

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