Book Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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You don’t know what it’s like to grow up with a mother who never said a positive thing in her life, not about her children or the world, who was always suspicious, always tearing you down and splitting your dreams straight down the seams. When my first pen pal, Tomoko, stopped writing me after three letters she was the one who laughed: You think someone’s going to lose life writing to you? Of course I cried; I was eight and I had already planned that Tomoko and her family would adopt me. My mother of course saw clean into the marrow of those dreams, and laughed. I wouldn’t write to you either, she said. She was that kind of mother: who makes you doubt yourself, who would wipe you out if you let her. But I’m not going to pretend either. For a long time I let her say what she wanted about me, and what was worse, for a long time I believed her.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

I’ve spent most of my life on the west coast, moving from Seattle to the Bay Area and finally to Vancouver, where I’ve been living now for more than ten years. But I was born in Seoul, a city whose complex and efficient transit system, assortment of inexpensive and sinfully delicious street foods, vast shopping malls, and plethora of skilled (and some criminally unskilled) plastic surgeons are second to none. Whenever I return to Seoul, which is usually at least once every four years, I’m always faced with the fact that the city I now call home is a sleepy hamlet compared to Seoul. In Seoul, there is always something happening, and the subway is always filled with people, whether at noon on a weekday or late in the night.

However, the Seoul  my parents speak of is vastly different. My parents grew up during the reign of Park Chung-Hee, a military dictator who ruled Korea for thirteen years and was assassinated by his own chief of security. (His daughter, elected as president in 2013, was recently impeached and is currently imprisoned.) My parents reminisce of a Korea plagued by a string of corrupt leaders, where poverty was rampant. Despite Seoul’s current reputation as a high-tech metropolis, I am reminded that the relatively cushy North American lifestyle I lead was made possible by the much harsher reality my parents underwent as students.

It’s funny how readily we relate to a person from a different culture. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao centers around the family of Oscar De Leon, an overweight, perpetually friendless Dominican-American growing up in New Jersey. The novel recounts the histories of Oscar, his older sister Lola, his mother Beli, and his grandparents, including depictions of the Dominican Republic under the reign of Rafael Trujillo. Now, I had never heard of Trujillo before reading this book, but the descriptions of the DR under Trujillo was as familiar to me as could be. While uniquely devastating and gruesome, I still related to the depictions of atrocities under Trujillo’s regime. In fact, I was significantly more interested in the stories of Beli and her parents, who were more directly impacted by Trujillo’s regime, than that of Lola and Oscar.

When I first picked up the book, I expected myself to easily relate to Oscar as the child of immigrants, and for the sense of non-belonging he constantly feels. However, I simply didn’t find Oscar sympathetic or interesting. His story arc, which generally consists of him flailing in self-pity and using unnecessarily verbose vocabulary, were dull. I’m no stranger to self-pity and depression, and while Oscar reminded me of some people I’ve known, I simply couldn’t wait to transition from his story to his mother or grandparents’.

That being said, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is engrossing and written skillfully. The writing, while switching perspectives between different characters, is a combination of English and Spanish, including slang – yet, for the most part, I could easily discern the meaning of the Spanish through context. It lends an authenticity to the novel while enhancing, not impeding, the reader’s experience. One of my biggest pet The Grapes of Wrath). Not here! I sometimes felt compelled to look things up on Google Translate, but for the most part, I cruised through the novel easily, despite my lack of familiarity with Spanish.

YES OR NO?: YES! The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is detailed, human, engaging, and provided me with a wealth of information about the history of a country I’d never before learned about. Despite the title, though, I found the sections on Oscar the least interesting, and would have preferred to learn more about the older members of his family, even his sister, Lola. That being said, I will definitely revisit Diaz’s work in the future.

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