Many of you have asked for my review of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, so here it is. I hope to hear what you think in the comments!
As is often the case with me these days, I haven’t had a lot of time to read what I really want to read. I’ve had to read books for my AP Literature class, and when I’m done with that, I want to do something that doesn’t involve reading words, so I tend not to pick up another book. Enter: library audiobooks. These have been the best things for me this year, since I can listen to them in my car on my way to and from work. Not only does this allow me to catch up with reading some of the books I’ve always wanted to read, but it makes my commute feel much shorter.
So, a few weeks ago, I went on the library website and started browsing for audiobooks that were available. When I came upon The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, I jumped to download it. It had been on my to-read list for a long time, and almost every single one of my friends has given it rave reviews.
I listened. And listened. And listened. I tried so hard to get into it, but I just couldn’t. However, with every status update Goodreads pushed from the site to Facebook or Twitter, another friend commented about how much they loved this book, so I kept going, even though I really didn’t want to.
When I finally finished the book, I still wasn’t impressed, though I gave it a 4-star rating on Goodreads originally (which has sense been downgraded to 3 stars). I fully understand there were a few things going on with me that probably altered how I felt about it, so allow me to explain.
First, I was listening to the book. This seemed to be the type of book that A) requires the reader’s full attention; and B) begs to be flipped back through to get all of the details as you are reading it. I could do neither. Flipping back through pages is impossible with an audiobook, and while I am listening, my mind inevitably wanders, whether to traffic or to my day ahead (or past), and I’ll always miss something without even realizing it. Furthermore, I was not a huge fan of the reader himself. The majority of the book was narrated by a man with Lola’s parts being narrated by a woman. The man spoke impeccable English, something you would expect from a professional reader. However, the book is written in the gritty, realistic dialect of a macho, Dominican man (Junior), complete with slang and many Spanish words. When the narrator used slang, I just didn’t believe it. It was like listening to myself try to connect with my teenage students by trying to use their language; every time, they laugh at me and tell me not to even try. On top of that, I don’t speak Spanish, so I had a great deal of difficulty following along. Normally, I wouldn’t anticipate this to be a problem; I’ve read many books with words that aren’t even real (Clockwork Orange, for example), and I’ve been able to pick up the meaning using root words and context clues. I do speak a bit of French, too, so if I were reading the text, I probably would have been able to get a handle on the language pretty well. While listening, however, this was difficult.
Second, the machismo in the book – Oscar feeling pressured by pretty much everyone to be a man and sleep around, Junior not being able to keep it in his pants even though he clearly loved Lola (and everyone more or less accepting that because this is “just how Dominican men are”) really, really bothered me. I’m not an expert on Dominican culture, so I’ll have to take Diaz’s word for it and believe that this is a true representation of Dominican men. Diaz certainly didn’t glorify this characteristic – in fact, he spent a great deal of time showing how the effects of the machismo tore men down; however, true or not and glorified or not, it’s difficult to invest in a book where that is so much a central theme while it bothers you to the core. I do understand that this entire book was a commentary on machismo and its effect on Dominican men, and I appreciate that immensely, but if you are asking whether or not I enjoyed the book, the answer would be a resounding “no.”
This leads me to my rating. Originally I gave it 4 stars. This was partly because I felt like if I didn’t “like” it, my friends would look down on me because they clearly enjoyed it so much. Never before have I been updating my progress on a book and had so many comments about how much people loved it. It’s a bit daunting to stare that in the face and say, “Yea… I really didn’t.” However, the majority of my original rating came from the fact that I realize beyond the shadow of a doubt that this book is Important (with a capital “I”). It has all of the fantastic qualities of an epic journey backwards in time through a family that has been wrought with peril and tragedy in the midst of Trujillo’s dictatorship coupled with the struggle of immigration and finding one’s way while navigating two separate cultures. It also, as stated earlier, has an important commentary on machismo that, as a feminist, I wish more people would be able to dissect and internalize.
So why did I downgrade my rating upon writing this review? Well, this comes mostly from the fact that I use ratings to show whether or not I would recommend a book to others. 3 stars shows that I did not necessarily enjoy this book, even though others might, and also that I totally get why people really feel positively about the text as a whole. It is an Important text, and should be read, just maybe not for fun.