The Short Version: Oscar de Leon, a young Dominican boy, grows up an overweight, socially awkward nerd. Of course as it turns out, it might not entirely be his fault – there’s been a curse on his family, a fukú, for generations and he’s just the most recent one to be on the receiving end.
The Review: How has it taken me so long to read this book? After all the awards, all the hype… is it because I was afraid I’d be let down? I can’t imagine that to be true – after all, I’ve tackled so many other hyped-up books in the intervening years since this was released. So really I don’t have an answer. But I’m glad I’ve finally been forced to read it (it was the most recent BookClub pick) because it’s absolutely hype-worthy.
I’ll admit: my enjoyment of the book was undoubtedly heightened by the fact that I, too, am a nerd. Yes, I can hear you gasp and I know you’re staring at your screen, agape in astonishment. It’s shocking.
But in all seriousness, I love me some solid fantasy and some good sci-fi. I always have and undoubtedly always will. My tastes have become a little more refined as I’ve gotten older, so I’m pickier about the sci-fi especially… but when Díaz dropped a Captain Trips reference like six pages in, I was done. Hook, line, and sinker. I’m curious to see how others – people less nerdy than yours truly, you might say – reacted to the constant peppering of references throughout the book. I didn’t get all of them but I caught most of them and, for me, they heightened the reading experience because I immediately had this kinship with Oscar. I was bullied in school for being a reader and a nerd – so there was an element of kinship. Although, as Díaz points out, Oscar was a super-nerd who even I’d have stayed away from. But that’s neither here nor there.
The book itself is not quite what I expected, I have to admit. I think Díaz’s voice is fantastic: the footnotes (mentioned so recently on this blog) were refreshing and witty, the smart-ass tone of Yunior (our narrator who is not, we later find out, just an omniscient voice), and the unabashed cultural tone set throughout the book make this something truly new. There’s plenty of Spanish scattered through the novel and while I’m ordinarily upset about not having a translation of such things… I wasn’t, this time around. I think that’s because, in my head, I didn’t need to know exactly what was being said because I sure as hell caught the tone. It was like watching a Spanish soap opera: you definitely know what’s happening, even if you don’t catch every word.
I had a few issues, structurally, with the book – although I’m not sure if they’re really issues so much as it wasn’t what I expected and as a result I pushed back slightly. See, only about half of the book is about Oscar. (And his last name isn’t Wao – that comes out of a riff on calling him Oscar Wilde in college. It happens maybe three times in the space of about two pages. This confused me a bit.) Instead, it’s actually about his family and about the curse. Which is fascinating – the references to In The Time of the Butterflies were a nice throwback to high school for me in a different way, as I still remember standing in front of Rob Henry’s AP English class my junior year and reading a scene from that book while “Letters From The Wasteland” by The Wallflowers played – but I just didn’t expect it. The book is as much about Trujillo and the DR as it is about Oscar himself. This is neither bad nor good, simply an observation. If I had to come down on one side, I’d say good, actually. This is entirely due to Díaz’s writing, too. I mean, the first footnote of the novel starts with “for those who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican Republic history” or something along those lines… and that sort of snarky tone is my jam.
Rating: 5 out of 5. I liked, most of all, the way this book made me feel. It has been an odd 2012 in many ways, none moreso than the weather… and reading this book in the midst of this early spring (the ground here in NYC is starting to thaw. and it’s the end of January.) just felt right. It wasn’t quite a beach book, although there are many beaches and hot girls in tiny bikinis, and yet it also wasn’t a book that could’ve fit any other weather. Something about reading this book right now felt 100% correct – and that’s a wonderful experience. After a spate of good/meh books, I was thrilled to read something that I absolutely tore through, that I didn’t want to put down even as the curtain was rising on Kevin Spacey as Richard III. If I had a few issues that kept it from the +, that doesn’t really matter – the good far outweighed the few moments of bad.