A family curse, a tropical island, a love-stricken underdog, a kind and beautiful woman with a torrid past: it sounds like the setup for a typical romance novel. But while Junot Diaz's long-awaited THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO is romantic in its own way, this book is anything but typical.
There may be a fukú, a curse, on the De Leon family; it sure seems that Oscar de Leon is living under one. Nerdy, overweight and socially awkward, Oscar lives with his fierce mother Belicia and his smart and lovely sister Lola. Unlike all the other Dominican men he knows, Oscar has no game with women. He falls in love again and again, but girls who aren't repelled by him see him only as a friend and someone to confide in about their own love lives.
As Oscar's lonely tale unfolds, readers are taken back two generations to when his family lived in the Dominican Republic under the violent dictator Trujillo. Oscar's grandfather, Abelard, spends the last years of his life as a broken and literally tortured man in prison for not turning over his daughter to Trujillo. Abelard's third daughter, Belicia, is born after his imprisonment and soon sold into virtual slavery. She is eventually tracked down by her father's cousin, a wise widow called La Inca. La Inca finds Belicia defiant after years of abuse, and she soon grows into a gorgeous young woman. The two do their best under the oppressive government and are even prospering until Belicia falls in love with a powerful gangster and gets pregnant. Belicia's dreams of love are shattered, and so is her body, as the gangster's goons beat her to the edge of death and leave her in a cane field. Angry and mourning the loss of her unborn baby, Belicia leaves the Dominican Republic, taking the fukú with her.
Years later, as a grown man back in the Dominican Republic and in love with La Inca's neighbor, Oscar feels the full weight of the fukú. But will his final act of love break the family from the curse's power? Will his future niece, Lola's daughter, be spared the sorrow and pain of the fukú? Either way, Oscar risks it all to love and to finally feel love in return.
Diaz's novel is sassy and wise, sharp and poignant. Oscar is a charming loser, and his story is both heart-wrenching and hilarious. The three main female characters --- Belicia, Lola and La Inca --- are strong and passionate, and while Oscar falls for interesting women, they pale in comparison to the three he grew up with. There are compelling male characters also, not in the least the narrator who knows Oscar and his family well.
Diaz writes in a natural vernacular, freely using Spanish and Dominican slang without translation or apology. It is only occasionally distracting (if you don't know Spanish) but still the story flows well and his meaning is always clear. He also explores much Dominican history and culture (often employing the footnotes so popular in fiction right now) firmly setting Oscar's life in the Dominican diaspora.
OSCAR WAO is full of sci-fi and fantasy references, especially Tolkien's THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Diaz explains Oscar's life the way Oscar would, full of clever puns and illusions to the one ring and Mordor. However, the narrator has a distinct voice of his own --- a street dialect both crass and keen.
Diaz's novel is fun and serious, broad in scope yet intimate. This unique and delightful tale is highly recommended.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on September 6, 2007
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao