I'd heard lots of praise for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao before I decided to pick it up in the airport (after Francois Sagan's The Unmade Bed didn't work out – I'm just not the best reader of romances). Still, I had no idea what exactly to expect and the few expectations I did have (I thought I'd be reading a novel entirely devoted to the woes of a dork) were wondrously defied. While it's true that the titular character is a comic book quoting (including Watchmen), three hundred pound virgin nerd who obsesses over every girl he meets, there's much, much more to the book and, thankfully, there's much more to Oscar than geeky stereotypes.
The story sprawls over generations following the magical realism touches of a fuku, or curse that follows Oscar's family from their days in the Dominican Republic to New Jersey and back again. An intriguing and heart breaking history lesson about a country under the brutal dictatorship of Trujillo unfolds and, while the book is not so sentimental to proclaim that love conquers all, it does at least suggest that there are powers stronger than the threat of death that can give people the will to survive. Love, for example, can mean more than life when you truly know loneliness.
At first I was a little thrown by the book's language, it reminded me of uncomfortable emails or Facebook updates where people curse and employ slang to appear casual and cool but,?thankfully, I didn't get turned off enough to stop reading – besides, the voice is ever-changing and each chapter is told from another point of view. In fact, I think it's the book's constant change ups that contributed to its overwhelming success.
The book's main accomplishment is its ability to appeal to the two types of people that actually read books. There are references to Tolkien, the 80s, and teenage lament for the nerdier crowd, and there are tales of hardship survival, elements of historical romance, and lessons about politics and little known history for the Red Tent and The Kite Runner readers. And while few authors can successfully merge all these elements together in a way that pleases everyone, this modest and engaging novel has done just that.