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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoAuthor: Junot Díaz

2007, Riverhead

Best ebook deal: Sony eBook Store

Filed under Literary

The most distinctive element of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has to be the voice. The Dominican-American narrator is part street and part geek, as likely to reference gangster rap as anime or political history, as likely to turn a Spanish phrase as an Elvish one. The narrator balances his vocabulary effortlessly, bridging disparate worlds of discourse with slang and colloquial asides. The voice (excepting one chapter’s departure) is so charming and enveloping that I would have read this novel for the heights of the writing alone, even if the story wasn’t as engaging and tragic as it is.

For the typical reader, this book will be an education in both cultural allusion and the contemporary history of an island not so far from the shores of Miami Beach. Factual asides and footnotes instill the fictional events with historical gravity, and Oscar’s family becomes a vehicle for tracing three generations of brutality and heartbreak from the Dominican to the Dominican diaspora.

In New Jersey, Oscar’s life is a relentless search for love that always seems far beyond his reach. Oscar is fat, nerdy, and cripplingly introspective. Girls pay him no mind, or if they do it’s only to lead him on, but that doesn’t keep Oscar from throwing himself into the search with an enthusiasm that’s embarrassing to nearly everyone but him. When the narrator is compelled to take a special interest in Oscar, because of a special interest in Oscar’s sister, he makes transforming this hopeless geek his personal project.

Would it be a surprise at this point if I said that the project ends up transforming the narrator, that it leads him into a family history that might be the cause of all of Oscar’s troubles in the first place? Or that the book isn’t really about Oscar so much as it’s about legacies, familial, political, historical, and how their descendants respond to them? Maybe that seems a bit grand, but turning the grandiose into the human is the province of good literature. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is certainly that.

Books you might also like: Drown by Junot Díaz, The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.