I had some pretty high expectations when I finally got around to reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) by Junot Diaz. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the recipient of fantastic reviews from every corner, I was prepared to be wowed. And in the end, I was, although I was a bit underwhelmed for the first hundred pages or so.
Oscar is an overweight fantasy/science-fiction loving nerd, whose mother came to New Jersey from the Dominican Republic. Burdened by cultural expectations as well as his exceeding romanticism, Oscar longs for sex and love and delves into depression and despair when he can't change his life into something else. But the book is about a lot more than just Oscar, allowing vivid glimpses into the history and culture of the Dominican Republic, the story of Oscar's mother and grandparents, and moving relationships between friends, siblings, lovers, and family.
Now that I'm looking back on this book, I can appreciate it, but for awhile I was feeling lost and worried that this was one I was going to have to force myself through. The biggest problem, for me, is that I can be somewhat anal-retentive. The author was constantly throwing in references to science-fiction and fantasy (Fortunately, I have read The Lord of the Rings, which allowed me to pick up on some of them.) as well as a lot of Spanish or Dominican slang that I could not understand. I felt like I was missing out on a lot of the book. And to make matters worse, the book kept skipping around. I couldn't tell who the narrator was, the book jumped without warning to Oscar's sister, Lola's, point of view, and then jumped back in time to the Dominican Republic. It also wasn't clear on people's names or relationships, and I wasn't sure whether I had somehow missed out on some of these explanations in the slang and Spanish, or if I wasn't supposed to know.
"For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history..." Yup, that would be me. I knew so little about the Dominican Republic, that two pages into the novel I had to pause for some quick internet research in order to give me some context. I love learning and reading the history of places I know almost nothing about, but, again, I had some trouble with this in the beginning of the book because the author's style made it hard to see what was exaggerated fiction and what might be historically accurate.
Fortunately, as the book moves along, the story comes back and answers all of my questions. I stopped feeling lost and jerked around and got more involved in the characters and the plot. The novel is actually much richer for first seeing Oscar's mom through Oscar's and Lola's eyes before hearing her full story. After whiling away the days, trying to read the first half of this book, I couldn't put it down for the second half. It was intense, honest, and moving, and I can see why it won the Pulitzer Prize