The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)

by Junot Díaz

Moving between present and past, English and Spanish, street slang and intellectual references, humor and tragedy, Juno Diaz’s award-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a tour de force. Diaz tells about the brutal Trujillo regime in his native Dominican Republic through the story of one family that ended up in Paterson, New Jersey.

The title character is overweight and a nerd, which, along with prejudice against his Dominican roots, socially ostracizes him. Oscar takes solace in reading and writing sci-fi and fantasy tales. Despite the title, it’s Oscar’s mother, Beli, who is the pivotal character in the well-to-do family’s downfall. Her teenage beauty caught Trujillo’s eye; her father tried to shield her and ended up in prison, where he died. Pregnant by Trujillo’s married brother-in-law, beaten by Trujillo’s henchmen, Beli is secreted out of the DR. Life doesn’t get better in the US; her husband abandons her with two children, and she has to perform drudge jobs to support them. Oscar and his older sister, Lola, grow up with a single mother who is bitter, fierce, combative, and hypercritical.

From the start of the book, Diaz wonders whether the family is plagued by the fukú, a curse. But perhaps there’s also a zafa, a blessing, in Oscar’s foolishly sweet sacrifice for love at the end.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2008.


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