“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz

I quite liked this book. I think that, perhaps, if I had come upon it by chance in a neglected corner of a bookshop and read it without any preconceptions, I would have really liked it. But I did have preconceptions. A couple of years ago this was a hot book, recommended in all the end-of-year newspaper reviews, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, winner of the American National Book Critics Circle Award. I was expecting something “Astoundingly great” (Time), “Technical breathtaking” (Time Out), “A triumph of style and wit” (San Francisco Chronicle) or “A masterpiece” (The Times).

After all that, quite liking it felt like an anti-climax.

The life of Oscar Wao is even briefer than the title would have you believe, because about half of the book or perhaps even more is devoted to the story of Oscar’s mother and grandparents in the Dominican Republic. This is a good thing – those parts of the book I really liked, as they dealt really well with life under the Trujillo dictatorship and the complex choices people faced to try to survive. In fact, I would have preferred a novel based only in the Dominican Republic, only covering those earlier generations.

With the introduction of Oscar, though, the book becomes something more familiar to publishers, booksellers and readers alike: an immigrant family saga. Oscar is a nerdy adolescent, overweight, hopeless with girls, into fantasy and role-playing, and with strange, C3PO-like speech patterns. We follow him around the malls of New Jersey, watching him being humiliated in various ways, and then he goes back to the Dominican Republic and some fairly unbelievable stuff happens which… well, I won’t give away the ending, but the title of the book should give you a clue. Oscar never felt as real to me as the characters in the historical section of the book, and ultimately I didn’t really care that his life was brief. I felt much more empathy for his grandfather and the impossible balance he tries to strike between protecting his daughter from Trujillo and protecting himself.

The narrative style is energetic and interesting, effortlessly mixing colloquial and poetic until you don’t know which is which any more. It kept me reading even through the parts I wasn’t that interested in, and in the historical sections it really soars. So overall a good book and one that I am glad I read – just wish I hadn’t approached it with such impossibly high expectations.

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8 thoughts on ““The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz

  1. Ah, yes, those high expectations can really ruin an experience. I think I have those expectations set up for The Road which I plan on reading sometime this summer. First I must read YOUR book, which has been put on hold yet again. It is next, though, I promise. 🙂

  2. I know what you mean, as well, with those expectations. But I’m hoping to really like it, too, and will find out soon enough. I heard Diaz talk about it on podcast (forget which) and loved him. Made me want to read it even more.

  3. I think clever titles alone can make you have high expectations for a book – just think of The Buddha of Suburbia. That is a good book, but I was expecting to be rolling on the floor laughing.

    Ruth 🙂

  4. I tend to avoid books or anything really that has received too much hype from media and social circles alike; until the noise has settled then only I consider it. This book for me, is one of those items. Although, his latest offering This is How You Lose Her is such a swoon title I’m afraid that this time the masses would have won.
    Your review promises an interesting read though, especially the ‘effortlessly mixing colloquial and poetic until you don’t know which is which any more’ line – It has me sold! Good use of language and poetic prose is a definite persuasion for me, even over a book’s narrative *gasp*

    1. Hi Lucinda
      I tend to avoid the hyped books too. When I read this it was already past the main hype, but I think it had still had an effect on me. When expectations are too high, it’s really hard for a book to measure up. But yes, if you like great use of language then you’d probably enjoy it. By the way, another book I read recently that had wonderful poetic prose was After the Fire, a Still, Small Voice by Evie Wyld. The plot was not that compelling for me, but the language was beautiful! So check it out if you get a chance, and if you can find it in South Africa!

  5. First off, I have to confess I am going down your review list alphabetically, picking out books or authors of interest to me, to “judge” your review prowess. At this point (probably 6-8 reviews read so far) I do thank you for your reviews.
    What I appreciate is that your review is not merely a plot summary (which is a sin of many blog reviews) but your experience of the material based on writing, concept, structure, etc.

    I agree with your review of The Brief Life about the DR portion of story being much the stronger part of the story, and I didn’t really see (or fail to see) the connection between the immigrant part and the past.

    I also read This is How You Lose Her recently, and came away feeling the same way, that the author is walking me through parts of his world, that the stories are poignant and beautifully written, but untimately leaving me somewhat thankless for the tour.

    1. Hi Sarah

      Thanks for the comment, and also for taking the time to read through my reviews. It’s very good to hear that you liked this review. I do try to talk about my personal experience of reading, since a plot summary is pretty easy for people to find on Amazon or anywhere else. It’s also my own way of trying to understand what works and what doesn’t, so that I become a better reader and hence a better writer. So it’s good to hear it’s working!

      I haven’t read This is How You Lose Her, but am very sorry to hear that it left you feeling the same way. Diaz does write beautifully, so it’s a shame that it doesn’t always add up.

      I remember reading an essay of his which I enjoyed very much – I wrote a blog post about it here if you’re interested: http://andrewblackman.net/2011/07/apocalypse/.

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