BookBrowse Reviews The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

A Novel

by Junot Diaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2007, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2008, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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A vibrant, fast-talking, slang-tossing, generation-spanning, name-dropping, foot-noted ride

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.

Reviewed by Lucia Silva

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.



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