The Brief and Wondrous Life of
Oscar Wao is a vibrant, fast-talking,
slang-tossing, generation-spanning, name-dropping,
foot-noted ride, filled with obscure references both
high and low brow, multiple narrators, a good dose
of Spanish, and a wildly complex and convoluted
historical backdrop. And if that description made
you wince and cross this book off your list, let me
first tell you this: it's also a lot of fun. I
didn't expect to like it, didn’t even really want to
read it. But ten pages into the first chapter, I was
bitten. Absolutely enthralled, I signed on for the
rest of the ride. Unlike some other writers that
might be lumped into the same stylistic category,
Junot Diaz is inclusive, not exclusive. He wants you
to join him, wants you to jump in and get on the
dance floor. And he leads like the best partner –
all of a sudden you feel like you've been dancing
the tango for years, even though you just learned
how to foxtrot last week. Confident and brilliant
but never smug, the main narrator of Brief and
Wondrous is so immediately likable, and the
affection he has for the characters in his story so
contagious, that you instantly fall in love with all
of them. Which makes the few small lulls and dips in
the story completely forgivable.
The story begins with Oscar, a lumpy, sad sack, "alternative genre" obsessed geek with a sweet heart who falls in love instantly and deeply over and over again, always unrequited. Nobody gets him, his smart, bookish ways and sci-fi inclinations make him ideal fodder for brutal teasing and bullying in 1980's/90's New Jersey. Luckily, we get on his side from page one. Which makes it difficult when he disappears from center stage halfway into the book as the story switches the spotlight onto his sister, then his mother. Their stories are fascinating, too – plot-wise even more so – and their characters are strong-willed and wily, but it's hard not to miss Oscar, catching glimpses of his gloomy countenance in the background. Luckily, the story of Oscar's mother, Hypatía Belicia Cabral (Beli), roars in like a lion, immersing the reader in the personal and political history that shapes the lives of her future children.
Before there was an American Story, before Paterson spread before Oscar and Lola like a dream, or the trumpets from the Island of our eviction had even sounded, there was their mother, Hypatía Belicia Cabral: a girl so tall your leg bones ached just looking at her, so dark it was as if the Creatrix had, in her making, blinked who, like her yet-to-be-born daughter, would come to exhibit a particularly Jersey malaise – the inextinguishable longing for elsewheres.
And a few pages later:
Beli had the inchoate longings of nearly every adolescent escapist, of an entire generation, but I ask you: So fucking what? No amount of wishful thinking was changing the cold hard fact that she was a teenage girl living in the Dominican Republic of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated.
As we flip back and forth, character to character, narrator to narrator, Diaz's prose-dance continues to dazzle as the story takes on greater weight as the history piles on – but it's not just dazzling for the sake of the dazzle. He loves the performance, but not for the applause. He loves doing it, loves the writing, loves the rush and the game, and most of all the promise, the hope, the bet, that you, the reader, will fall in love, too.
This review was originally published in October 2007, and has been updated for the September 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
Discover your next great read here
We've heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the complete works of Shakespeare...
Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!
Solve this clue:
and be entered to win..
Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.
Your guide toexceptional books
BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.