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.