Monday, November 12, 2012
Book Review: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
Author: Junot Diaz
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: September 11, 2012
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library
Plot Summary from Goodreads:
On a beach in the Dominican Republic, a doomed relationship flounders. In the heat of a hospital laundry room in New Jersey, a woman does her lover’s washing and thinks about his wife. In Boston, a man buys his love child, his only son, a first baseball bat and glove. At the heart of these stories is the irrepressible, irresistible Yunior, a young hardhead whose longing for love is equaled only by his recklessness--and by the extraordinary women he loves and loses: artistic Alma; the aging Miss Lora; Magdalena, who thinks all Dominican men are cheaters; and the love of his life, whose heartbreak ultimately becomes his own. In prose that is endlessly energetic, inventive, tender, and funny, the stories in This Is How You Lose Her lay bare the infinite longing and inevitable weakness of the human heart. They remind us that passion always triumphs over experience, and that “the half-life of love is forever.”
At its core, This Is How You Lose Her is a book about love. But it's not a happy, squishy, feel-good love story. No--the book is actually a series of short stories, dealing with the messy, deceitful, and heartbreaking consequences that can come from love gone awry. Central to most of the stories is Yunior, who (if you read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) you may remember as Oscar's sister's boyfriend in Diaz's last novel. Yunior was the narrator for part of that novel as well, but in this story, his history is fleshed out much more. I like how Diaz created that sense of continuity between the two books.
Yunior is an interesting character. Yes, he is a cheater--and a pretty consistent one, at that. But he's also constantly regretful of his transgressions. So throughout the novel, you're left wondering--why? Why does he continue to break the hearts of others, especially when his heart often ends up broken as well? Is it an example learned from his father, who ran off so long ago? Or from his brother, who brazenly jumps from woman to woman with hardly a second thought? Or is it entrenched in his culture (as one girlfriend, Magda, seems to think)--did he learn to behave this way from his Dominican upbringing? Obviously, none of these things end up providing a clear answer to the question, but they all came together to provide a illustrative backdrop for the details of Yunior's life.
One story that stuck out for me was "Otravida, Otravez", which centers on a woman who is the mistress to a Dominican man (unrelated to Yunior, as far as I could tell). The man's wife lives back in the DR, while he is in the US working and setting up a life with this other woman. It's the only story without a direct relation to Yunior's life, but I think it serves to broaden the book's perspective--giving a female point of view, and a look at the other side of an unfaithful relationship. It caught me off guard at first, but this is the story that made me realize this is not a book about Yunior, but a book that is trying to encompass larger themes about love and loss.
But the best part about these stories? Yunior's voice. Remember when I went to that Junot Diaz reading last month? I mentioned that Diaz had everybody cracking up as he read from the "Alma" chapter--his voice is raw, humorous, and distinctively Dominican in flavor. That carries throughout the entire book, and makes it stand out from any other story collection I've read. It made me wish I could hire the guy to sit in my living room and read me the whole thing. Diaz writes with his Dominican background at the forefront, and he does it like a master. (But, a note to the other blanquitas out there, like myself: you better have Google Translator handy so you can figure out some of the Spanish phrases! Ha.)
This is one of those books that's short on length, but big on contemplation. You'll read it quickly but spend a lot of time mulling it over afterwards. Great collection of stories, but I'd still probably recommend reading Oscar Wao first--just so you can get introduced to Yunior there before finding out his whole story here.