The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

“Oscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd, a New Jersey romantic who dreams of becoming the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love.” 

Who could resist picking up a book with a lead in like that?

No self-respecting, Tolkien-loving, overweight nerd; that’s for sure.

From the second I read the back I knew I had to have it. In fact, I bought it at first sight, and when I finished my Tolkien time I just couldn’t quit cold turkey so I thought this book might have a subtle way of calming my Middle Earth munchies.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is Junot Dìaz at his finest, and, true to its promise, it’s a tale rife with Tolkien references.

“She sat in her immense house in La Capital like a shelob in her web…” “You think people hate a fat person? Try a fat person who’s trying to get thin. Brought out the m-f-ing balrog in [them]…”*  

A wonderful, witty blend of family, nerd-culture, the Dominican Republic, and growing up. A novel with so much going on it’s hard to even begin to critique.

I have to hand it to Dìaz, he has a way of turning a phrase that sends shivers down my spine. There’s no second-guessing why this man won a Pulitzer Prize for this book. The prose alone is a masterpiece, and on top of that it has a rich and compelling storyline with a decent helping of relatability to help tie it all together.

And you have to love a man who weaves in the very best of nerd-culture into the fabric of his story – complete with an “Et tu?” joke and everything. It’s hard to dislike a book with that much quirky, historical, brainiac charm.

There are scenes in this book that are pointed and painful, scenes that made me drawn in my breath and hold it until the passage was over and put away for good. The novel is rife with scenes that stick to you, but it’s not a sad book, or at least, that’s not all it is. There are many redeeming qualities.

For one thing, the book has some SASS. Real cajones, too. The narrator is hilarious, with a wry and witty way of regarding the story as he’s telling it. It establishes him as a past-participant and also the storyteller, and I do love a good narrator that isn’t’ afraid to actually narrate. By which I mean, I like it when the narrator throws out the occasional aside or makes a joke mid-story.

That being said, I thought the footnotes were going to be the most annoying thing ever when I first started reading, but overall they were fun little tangents. They were full of history too, which I like, as I like a novel that teaches me something. There were a ton of things I didn’t know about the Dominican Republic, and the narrator assumes that and drops knowledge in a rather unforgettable manner.

“The pejorative parigüayo, Watchers agree, is a corruption of the English neologism ‘party watcher.’ The word came into common usage during the First American Occupation of the DR, which ran from 1916 to 1924. (You didn’t know we were occupied twice in the twentieth century? Don’t worry, when you have kids they won’t know the U.S. occupied Iraq either.)”

^You’ve gotta love the phrasing there.

Despite the cleverness and the laughs the footnotes provided I did have a problem with them interrupting the flow of the story – sometimes taking up almost an entire page – I would have preferred them worked into the text itself. Having to refer to them every few pages was a bother when I was at a good place in the story and didn’t want to stop reading.

But the novel is full of solid wisdom from “God save your soul, if you think boys are the answer to anything,” to “You can’t regret the life you didn’t lead.” Preach, Dìaz, Preach.

There is so much to love about this book – the descriptions bring the family and their world to life. I saw everything – the good, bad, and the ugly with vivid clarity. And well, from the beginning you know it’s not going to be a happy story – it’s a brief life after all – but you can’t stop your eyes from forging through, and you can’t stop your heart from getting attached. And when the end does come at last, well, there’s no being ready for it. It stops your heart along with his.

Heartbreaking, but with just enough happiness to leave you healing.

To end I’ll leave you with my two favorite quotations:

First, the one in which the narrator makes the claim that writers are dictators with a better handle on the whole “word” thing…

“What is it with Dictators and Writers, anyway? Since before the infamous Caesar-Ovid war they’ve had beef… Rushdie claims that tyrants and scribblers are natural antagonists, but I think that’s too simple; it lets writers off pretty easy. Dictators, in my opinion, just know competition when they see it. Same with writers. Like, after all, recognizes like.”

And second, the one that deals with Oscar’s most estimable passion, LotR…

“He read The Lord of the Rings for what I’m estimating the millionth time, one of his greatest loves and greatest comforts since he’d first discovered it back when he was nine and lost and lonely and his favorite librarian had said, Here, try this, and with one suggestion changed his life.” 

In case I haven’t made it clear, this will not be the last Junot Dìaz novel I pick up.

*This sentence was altered to avoid words that I find offense and are inappropriate for all audiences.

Rating: 9/10

Overall Reaction: “Curses are real, magic is real, Middle Earth is real, and this nerd-kid would have had a friend in me.”

Up Next Week: The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson


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