Now that my 2011 Year in Review is behind me, I’m kicking off 2012 with a book that’s near and dear to my heart. Y’all know I love Junot. I’ve read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao twice (some parts way more than that), I’ve used excerpts of it in the classroom (point of view & tone, in case you’re wondering), and I even incorporated the book into my blog header…but up until now, my blog has been bereft of an actual review of the book! Considering it’s one of my favorite books of all time, I couldn’t abide by that any longer.
I first stumbled upon Oscar Wao kind of serendipitously via Bookslut’s interview with Junot right before the book was published. At the time, I had no idea that the novel was eagerly anticipated by certain literary circles. Hadn’t read Drown, didn’t know about the New Yorker 20 Under 40 thing. None of that. It was just a straight up, “I like you,” and then a couple of weeks later I grabbed the book from the library and fell in love on the spot. I’m so grateful that I first came to this book completely unaware of all the buzz leading up to the Pulitzer.
And now here we are: Oscar Wao was the first book I picked up in 2012, and it was like falling in love all over again.
The book introduces readers to several generations of the de Léon family, who, because of their tenuous ties to the brutal Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, carries the curse of the fukú. Carrying the brunt of the curse is Oscar, a depressed, overweight sci-fi geek growing up in New Jersey who is the antithesis of everything one expects in a young Dominican male: he has zero social skills, zero game with the ladies, and has resigned himself to dying a virgin. All the help in the world — and believe me, people have tried to help — can’t save him from this bleak fate.
As the story unfolds, we start to learn more about Oscar and his family. His mother, Beli, may be dying of cancer, but she still rules her household with an iron fist. Lola, Oscar’s sister, is a headstrong young woman who spends much of her time frantically rebelling against her mother; the two are always at each other’s throats (perhaps because, sometimes, they’re similar in more ways than they’d care to admit). I love Lola, of whom the narrator says, “Now that her crazy years were over — what Dominican girl doesn’t have those? — she’d turned into one of those tough Jersey dominicas, a long-distance runner who drove her own car, had her own checkbook, called men bitches, and would eat a fat cat in front of you without a speck of vergüenza.” In the periphery of their lives is Yunior, the narrator (a.k.a. Oscar’s college roommate and Lola’s on-and-off philandering boyfriend). As Yunior narrates, it’s clear that the story will haunt him for the rest of his life.
Though the family is based in New Jersey, it’s in the Dominican Republic where the book truly comes to life. The brutal history of the country is weaved in through footnotes and the plot itself. It’s where Beli grew up and ultimately ran away from, and where Lola and Oscar found peace under the watchful gaze of their grandmother, La Inca.
I said earlier that I used excerpts from this book to teach tone, and that’s because the writing in the book is incredible. It’s at turns fast-paced, tender, somber, crass, and funny (I wish I could count the number of times I kept bothering my sister to read lines out loud). Spanish is sprinkled in throughout the narrative; sometimes you can translate it from the context, but there are also moments where things get lost in translation; I know some people found this frustrating, but I love the inside joke nature it. Another thing that I adore about the book is that, unlike other books whose main protagonist is male, the women of this book are fully-fleshed and given their chance to shine.
There’s a reason I used Oscar Wao in the classroom: students who have an aversion to reading have an idea of what a book is “supposed to” sound like and be about (i.e., dead white guys using Queen’s English, set in some completely unrelatable era); using this in the classroom turned that idea on its head. The book speaks to people and shows that non-traditional narratives are relevant and powerful. I love the book because of its memorable characters and its playfulness with language and narrative structure, but I also love it because it’s thrilling to see the passionate reactions it has elicited from people. Because ultimately, isn’t that what a good book is supposed to do?
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was originally released on September 6, 2007 by Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin.