I often hit roadblocks when trying to write reviews. I usually have an especially hard time working up the mojo to write a review if the book was especially good and I want to do it justice in my write-up.
But I also occasionally hit a roadblock when writing up a mediocre book because I simply can’t find anything to really say about it.
It took me a long time to get around to writing a review for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It was an okay book, but I certainly didn’t think it was as good as the hype made it out to be, and now, two months later, I’m having a hard time trying to eke out enough memories to write a decent review.
The book revolves around Oscar de Leon, a Dominican boy growing up in New Jersey. Oscar is a smooth operator with the ladies… until he turns seven and starts seeing two girls at once. One demands that he choose between the two and, being a dog as all men are (I keed, I keed), he picks the prettier one. She responds by dumping him shortly thereafter, and, from that moment on, he’s doomed to be lady-free.
Oscar grows up to be a stereotypical geek: obese, loves sci-fi, is socially awkward, falls in love with unattainable women on a regular basis, etc. On top of all of that, his sister Lola has a strained relationship with their mother, Belicia, and he often finds himself torn between the two.
We get to see the story from Lola’s point of view, and then we flash back to Belicia’s childhood in a Dominican Republic overrun by minions of dictator Rafael Trujillo. As you’d expect, she had a rough childhood and adolescence, which is why she’s so hard on her own daughter.
The most compelling part of the story for me was told from the viewpoint of Lola’s boyfriend, Yunior. A perennial player, he’s constantly stepping out on Lola, even though he genuinely cares for her and knows that his philandering is going to lose him the love of his life. Yunior begins to show kindness to Oscar because of his connection to Lola, but ends up genuinely caring for him. Seeing Yunior grow in affection and care for awkward Oscar was moving;
The book explores themes like growing up in two cultures, family drama, unrequited love, growing up under an oppressive regime, fate — all weighty themes that should make for a gripping read. And, yet, somehow, the book just felt like a standard coming-of-age/fish-out-of-water story.
Maybe it’s because I’m the child of immigrants, myself; maybe it’s because I grew up awkwardly boy-repellent myself. I’m calloused to the struggles of socially awkward and criminally neglected children. But I just wasn’t too terribly moved by Oscar’s story or by Díaz’s writing (note: throwing in a few non-English words doesn’t make it “deeper” somehow. Not that this was Díaz’s intent, but the critics sure seem to put a lot more meaning into that than it deserves).
It’s a decent book; certainly not the worst I’ve ever read. But Pulitzer Prize material? Hardly. At least I don’t think it should be. But the last two Pulitzer Prize-winners I’ve read have been mediocre at best, and it doesn’t make me too terribly excited to read another.