Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Just Finished: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

I had no real desire to read this book until a friend gave it to me in lieu of packing it off to America with her. It's been such a buzz book, which is a bit of a turnoff, sort of, plus it didn't sound that interesting. So ok. I was wrong. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, literary darling Junot Diaz's Pulitzer prize winning nove, is a read worth..reading.

While the title character Oscar features pretty close to center in the novel, ultimately, the story is about the de Leon/Cabral family and the supposed curse that has plagued this Dominican family all the way from the island to New Jersey and back again.

Oscar is a hapless, obese nerd whose nerdiness only increases as he becomes more and more socially awkward, reading, watching and writing sci-fi as he hopelessly pines after girls who have no interest in him whatsoever. He is completely incapable of being "normal" and constantly spirals down with little to any resolve besides his fantasy obsession.

Oscar's sister Lola is popular and also troubled. As she grows up, she too grows somewhat destructive, unable to deal with her mother and throwing herself senselessly at the opposite sex, but always feeling a sense of love and responsibility to draw her brother out of himself.

The two grow up in a household where there harsh mother yells more often than comforts, but as the story backtracks, the narrator tells us of horrible past--abuse, love gained and lost, and repeated disappointments that eventually forced her to flee from her native Santo Domingo to New Jersey and to shut off emotionally from her children.

Santo Domingo particularly comes alive in the story as the characters from past and present endure the harsh rule of a ruthless dictator (Trujillo) and his minions (who carry out the family curse) and the unstable life of a third-world country full of disappointment, corruption, and prayer (in the form of La Inca, the stand-in matriarch in the story).

While the language is sometimes rancid and sometimes barely comprehensible for a non-Spanish speaker, the story is compelling throughout although not very suspenseful. It's more like a yarn being unfolded on a porch somewhere (or perhaps whispered), and the title is the Brief Wondrous Life--so it's kind of a giveaway that Oscar probably isn't going to last to the end of the book.

The writing is witty, intelligent, and conversational. Long before the end, you feel like you've got the characters in your head, so distinct are their voices. But the best thing about the novel is that it provides a great window into a culture completely foreign to me and probably to most non-Dominican people. Not that I think I've now got a full view of the culture or the people, but definitely a glimpse to go on.

Now I'm all caught up on my book reviewing. Phwew.

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