Posted by: Sally Ingraham | July 6, 2011

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

oscarby Junot Diaz

I could never have predicted that there would come a time in my life when I would actually say “If this fellow alludes to, compares with, references, or in any other way mentions The Lord of the Rings one more time I think I will scream!” How could this have happened? How could a beloved novel become the source of such irritation? Thanks for nothing Junot Diaz!

If you can hack your way through the jungle of LOTR characters and lands and situations, you will discover that this is a novel about Oscar, an overweight and extremely nerdy Dominican boy growing up in New Jersey. It’s the tale of his search for love and his battle against the fierce fuku – an ancient curse – that plagues his family. It’s the epic story of one family’s journey from San Domingo and the tyrannically oppressive rule of Trujillo, to the oppressive tyranny of life in the American ghetto.

The crash course in Dominican history and politics over the past few decades was interesting, (mostly related in copious footnotes as though Diaz felt compelled to “fill in” the average American reader on the history of the Dominican Republic) but that was really all I found interesting about the book. Although the nerd in me was initially delighted by the LOTR references, and I could readily relate to Oscar’s desire to be the next J. R. R. Tolkien, I quickly got the picture – Trujillo is Sauron, he has Witch Kings, he has Ringwrathes, he has Orcs. GOT IT! Diaz tried to pass off this annoying ploy by making out that it was Oscar’s sister Lola’s sometimes-boyfriend who was the “watcher” and narrator of most of the story. Except for the part where Lola narrated for awhile, not that I could tell the difference (well actually, if I remember correctly, she offered a brief respite from the LOTR nonsense!)

I will grant that Oscar was tantalizingly intriguing (since he was seen only through the eyes of others I never got a solid sense of who he was) and that the book was somewhat funny and moved along at a brisk enough pace. I was mildly entertained, and kept mildly interested, but overall the book didn’t work for me.

My reaction comes down to this, briefly: I feel compelled to seek out other (better?) novels about the Dominican Republic, and find that my desire to read LOTR again this year has been zapped. Pooh.

This was the June pick for The Wolves. Around the end of July we will be discussing Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. Feel free to join us if you would like to!


  1. I read a couple of pages of this one and didn’t care for it at all but your review is the first I’ve read that mentioned the LOTR. Really? That alone would turn me off.

    • If I had read a review of this book that mentioned the LOTR references along with other nerdy things I would have thought, “Oh, fun!” And it did seem fun for awhile. But too much of a good thing, etc. Oh well.

  2. fantastic review.

    after reading this post, I thought…all that positive buzz, was anything more said about this book than a re-cycle of the publisher’s comments and the fact that it was written by JUNOT DIAZ? I must look again….

    I appreciate your response, and thank you for a very helpful review.

    • Glad you found it helpful! I’m so bad at keeping abreast of book buzz that when I picked this one up my thoughts were “Huh, I think I’ve seen this cover before, somewhere. Hey look, it won a Pulitzer! Well, let’s have at it, I guess…” 🙂

  3. Another meh reaction, what a surprise! Actually, I think I might have been annoyed by Díaz less than most of the rest of the Wolves, probably due to my tolerance for junk food (there are some similarities, you have to admit). Very good book about Trujillo’s reign of terror in the DR: Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat. Mediocre book about Trujillo’s reign of terror in the DR: Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies. Be careful about the latter book because, although it sometimes receives rave reviews, I think most of those raves are coming from lightweight historical fiction fans who would have said that the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy was a good read.

    • Ack!! I figuratively dropped the Alvarez book like it was burning my fingers as I finished reading your comment. On the other hand, I’ve had The Feast of the Goat on my list for awhile so perhaps it’s time to give it a try. I’m not scared off Llosa at all even with my recent struggle with Conversation in The Cathedral.

      And my semi-negative review doesn’t really reflect the fact that I read this book in two sittings. Which is about as long as it takes me to get through a (big) bag of Party Mix!

  4. (As you can see I’m making my way through your backlog…)

    Yes. Totally agreed, and I think it’s hilarious that even you, who have written several times about your love of LOTR, found those references to be overdone. Maybe if I’d been as attuned to them as you I would have noticed their abatement during Lola’s narration. 😛

    • Once I officially switched over from finding the LOTR references fun and funny, to annoying and aggravating, I had LOTR x-ray vision and I swear there was one on just about every page. I wish I had been less attuned. They really derailed the book for me – like too many pretzels in an otherwise tolerably decent Party Mix (to continue Richard’s junk food analogy from above).

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