Let me preface this with a personal disclaimer. This was not an easy book to navigate with an audio version, although the reader was superb, because of the many Spanish words and colloquialisms which I did not recognize. With a visual, I could have looked back, checked the spelling, looked up words, and perhaps I would have found the book far more entertaining. I found some of the subject matter very distasteful and the language unnecessarily profane. The most vulgar language and sexual descriptions left little to the imagination. Although the descriptions were apt and spot on, they were sometimes absolutely gross. I was not a bit interested in reading graphic descriptions of violent, senseless beatings or gratuitous, sadistic sex that did not in any way enhance the story. As in “A Visit From The Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan, the language and descriptive sex in this novel, detracted from its beauty.
The book is written with subtle humor even as it describes horrific scenes. The characters are not very likeable as they are all very naïve and ill informed, making poor judgments leading to abysmal consequences in their lives. They never seem to learn from experience and repeat the same mistake, generation after generation, choosing the wrong mate and the wrong path to follow, hence the aura of a curse around the family.
That said, the author did a masterful job of setting the time and place. Through the history of Oscar Wao’s troubled family, beginning with his grandfather, Abelard, in the Dominican, and continuing with Oscar’s upbringing, we learn what it was like for him to live and grow up in Patterson, NJ, as well as in the Dominican Republic, right under the nose of Trujillo. He forces the reader to experience the brutality of the regime. We learn of the fucu, the faceless man, the dreams and the tragedies that befell this family, generation after generation.
The history of Oscar’s family is filled with despair. Under the Trujillo regime, his family was stripped of their wealth and prominence. It was an oppressive regime which left no records of its monstrous cruelty to individuals. Oscar’s cousin was destroyed by friends, the very friends who turned him in with their lies, who then became the recipients of some of his wealth. It was a corrupt society, hopeless. Oscar believes his family has a background based in superstition or the supernatural, that it is cursed. He is very intelligent and very creative with a wild imagination.
Oscar’s mom had a hard life in the Dominican Republic and she moved to the states. Oscar grows up in Paterson, New Jersey with his sister. He is a loser, a nerd; he has no social life, has no social skills and is not especially pleasant looking, being overweight and wearing glasses, among other things. He is a misfit from a broken home; his father left his mom after 3 years of marriage. His mom is a taskmaster who rarely gives compliments or encouragement and his sister eventually runs away and is sent back to the Dominican to live with a cousin. We continue to follow Oscar as he grows up but never seems to fulfill his dreams. He is unsuccessful with women and has few friends. When he finally doe, succeed, it is in the Dominican Republic, and it is a tragic and final ending.
There are several concurrent narratives, causing some confusion. The narrator, Yunior, relates the highlights of the different character’s lives. For a time, they seem to have no connection, but eventually, all the parts coalesce. There is Beli, Oscar’s mother; Lola, Oscar’s sister; Yunior, his “so-called” best friend; La Inca, Beli’s cousin; Ybon, Oscar’s true love and others. They all have their own stories; they all come from the Dominican. It is an immigrant's story, a story about superstitions and fantasies, nightmares and dreams, dysfunctional families, doomed relationships, poor choices, abandoned hopes and unattainable dreams and desires.
Having lived in NJ, I found the places mentioned in the book a walk down memory lane. I remembered with fondness, the drive-in, in Perth Amboy; the amusement park in Wildwood, NJ; Rutgers University.