#BestsellerCode100: A Reader’s Review of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz is next up on our 100 Bestsellers List reading challenge.  Although this book is considered to be Díaz’s debut novel, he published a collection of short stories a decade earlier.  Drown is considered by some to be semiautobiographical; in 10 short stories, Yunior (also our narrator in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) relates the journey of his immigrant family from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey.

This post does contain spoilers.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

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Culture and Language

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is steeped in the culture and history of the Dominican Republic, so much so that it includes dozens of footnotes to explain historical references, specifically to the era of its dictator Rafael Trujillo.  I’ve rarely read a novel that included footnotes and one would think these would be helpful. Unfortunately, the few I read were so long that I nearly forgot the storyline while reading the footnote.  Also, in the Kindle version, the footnote numbers were not very noticeable and I missed the bulk of them, not seeing them until the end of the book, at which time they were totally useless.

Díaz mingles English with Spanish, Spanglish, and slang continually throughout the book, with no attempts to translate for the reader.  If you come from a Latin American culture or know Spanish, this probably wasn’t an issue, but for me, it was a huge drawback.   I could glean very little from the context and my Kindle version didn’t translate or couldn’t find most of the words I asked for, so I finally gave up and just skimmed over those sections.  Yes, I could have Googled for translations, but the time that would have taken would have been astronomical.

Wondrous Descriptions

As Roberta noted in her Writer’s Review, Díaz created vibrant images.  He brought alive the people and locations of his novel.  Díaz described the Dominican tyrant Trujillo as the

portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulato who bleached his skin, wore platform shoes, and had a fondness for Napoleon-era haberdashery.

With a description like this, who needs a picture?

Unfortunately, vibrant word images were not enough to make me care about the characters in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, especially the main male characters, Oscar and Yunior (the narrator).  I felt that the story would have been stronger if the main character had been Oscar’s mother, Belicia.  In an extended flashback, we learn Belicia’s tragic history in the Dominican Republic, but her story essentially ends when she leaves her homeland in her mid-teens, immigrating to New Jersey.  How she overcame her heartbreak, the obstacles she faced in America, could have been more compelling than Oscar’s continual quest to get laid.  While I felt sorry for Oscar in many ways, I felt like a good dose of antidepressants and a personal trainer would have gone a long ways to improve Oscar’s life.  It was difficult to feel sympathy for a middle-class nerd from New Jersey after the flashback to Abelard, Oscar’s grandfather, who ran afoul with Trujillo, was imprisoned and brutally tortured and, in the end, lost everything – home, family, fortune, businesses, and eventually his life.

Not My Cup Of Tea

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao had been on my “want to read” list for quite some time, ever since a friend mentioned how much she loved it, so I was looking forward to reading it. My friend’s taste, though, tends to be a bit different than mine and this book is one glaring example.  While I loved the writing itself – in places it was lyrical and evocative – I didn’t care for the style, the mixture of Spanish and slang, and I didn’t care at all about the main character Oscar.

Several of the novels we’ve read during this challenge have led me to further explore other books by the same author.  In fact, I am currently reading two such books – Us by David Nicholls (One Day, book #92) and Rules of Prey by John Sandford (Easy Prey, book #86) – and I have The Bourne Legacy by Eric Van Lustbader (The Bourne Betrayal, book #71) on my nightstand to start next.  I’m sorry to say that I won’t be looking for any other Junot Díaz books to add to that list.

Have you read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective

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What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 69. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013) – Discussion begins January 9, 2018
Literary fiction, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014

1 Comment

  1. Roberta

    Your review is spot on. I agree 100% that Belicia’s story would have been much more compelling. It is the moving centerpiece in an awful frame.

    Sometimes it can be scary for an author to write a character who is too far from their own experience. Perhaps that’s why she wasn’t developed more.

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