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This review is from: This Is How You Lose Her (Hardcover)
Anyone familiar with either of Junot Díaz's previous books will remember Yunior, the Dominican kid coming of age in Drown who goes on to become the narrator of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Back for his third starring role Díaz's work, Yunior is the link connecting most of the stories in This Is How You Lose Her. People who read Oscar Wao got a chance to see how compulsively self-destructive Yunior was in his relationships with women. In This Is How You Lose Her, Yunior's doomed relationships take center stage, as does the tenuous relationship he has with his older brother, Rafa.
It's always an encouraging sign when someone you admire begins something by quoting someone else you very much admire. In this case, the book's epigraph is from the Sandra Cisneros poem, "One Last Poem for Richard." But even better, This Is How You Lose Her opens with one of my favorite short stories, "The Sun, The Moon, The Stars," which was originally published in The New Yorker in 1999. It was written well before readers got to know Yunior in Oscar Wao, but in the story we can already see the effects of his lying and cheating as he tries in vain to earn back his girlfriend's trust.
I had already read a few of the stories in this collection, but reading them all at once and seeing how they fit together was a wholly different experience. One of the most striking things about it was getting to see the way that Yunior's views and his interactions with women were shaped by (and, at times, in response to) his older brother's womanizing ways. In Drown, we got to see a little bit of what Yunior was exposed to as a child; he bore witness to his father's philandering. With his father largely out of the picture in This Is How You Lose Her, it is now Rafa who sets the example for Yunior. While Yunior will never become the abusive person his brother is -- he's often shocked by the cruel ways Rafa treats his girlfriends -- his life experiences, personal traumas, and cultural pressures all have an impact on the way he will eventually begin to treat women.
Then there's the added layer of a cancer story: Rafa fights a losing battle with cancer during some of Yunior's most formative years, but instead of bringing the brothers closer, Rafa shuts everyone out; the loss is something that Yunior reflects on as he gets older. However, the book's cancer story -- and I use "story" here collectively, as Rafa's illness is subtly weaved into several of the stories -- is unlike any other cancer story I've ever read. As with many other difficult topics Díaz has written about, Rafa's battle provides both life-changing and flat-out hilarious moments. There are elements of levity in Rafa's story that I just can't see being told by anyone other than Díaz.
The story's true allure comes from its multiple layers, subtly pulling from both Drown and Oscar Wao in ways that made me want to immediately go back and reread all three of Díaz's books in a row. That last story, "The Cheater's Guide to Love," shows Yunior years down the road. Rocked hard after being (rightfully) dumped by his fiancee, he is finally learning the error of his womanizing ways. The pain of this heartbreak is brutal and sends him spiraling into depression, but it is this emotional rock-bottom that might finally offer Yunior a way out of the hole he's dug himself into.
Since most of the stories feature Yunior, the narrative as a whole is very male-centric. Only one of the stories, "Otravida, Ortravez," features a female point of view; this is also the only story that is not tied in with the others. Still, to dismiss Yunior's crassness and boneheaded machismo would also dismiss the very human portrait that Díaz has created. More importantly, it would dismiss the nuanced portrayal of the outside factors -- culture, sexism, marginalization -- that feed into Yunior's many faults. Ultimately, the book shows that Yunior's way just isn't going to work. It's not sustainable.
Finally, a note on language. Because I saw so much nonsense regarding the Spanglish in Oscar Wao and have already begun seeing nonsense regarding the Spanglish in This Is How You Lose Her, I want to end not with a quote from the book, but with a quote from Gloria Anzaldúa's "Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza":
"So, if you really want to hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity -- I am my language...Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without always having to translate, while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish, and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate."
Remember that, because Díaz's playfulness with language is not only legitimate, it's vivid and marvelous. And it's pure Junot.
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Showing 1-10 of 12 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 8, 2012 9:48:45 AM PST
Stephen Hackman says:
In reply to an earlier post on Nov 8, 2012 10:22:29 AM PST
Feminist Texican Reads says:
"Perhaps in protesting so very much you betray an insecurity - warranted, I think - in your predictable ideological subtext."
Pot, meet kettle.
In reply to an earlier post on Nov 17, 2012 6:37:04 AM PST
[Deleted by Amazon on Nov 17, 2012 6:44:36 AM PST]
Posted on Dec 17, 2012 11:15:31 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 17, 2012 11:20:39 AM PST
Ed Morgan says:
Contrary to the first reviewer, I think this is a well written and helpful review--thanks!
Posted on Feb 6, 2013 11:13:06 AM PST
J. A Bowen says:
Terrific review. I was just introduced to Diaz and am already enthralled. I wonder if a first reading of him would be better in the short story format or if I should just go ahead and get his latest novel.
I don't mind the male-centric voice. It's easy to see how self-destructive he is and you feel sorry for him, while also wanting to shake him until his teeth fall out.
Posted on May 25, 2013 2:07:56 AM PDT
rachel Karny says:
The stories sometimes lack a poenta even though the going IS ,well ok "vibrant"as all critics sing the praise; if indeed slang, crude language and awfully much Spanglish automatically translate to "vibrant". This however is not my full review but only a comment about the a.m. defense of his Spanglish. Literature is not a stage for language and national equal opportunity; the point of fact is that I simply did not know the meaning of some 15% of words in these stories and couldn't even find them in a basic Spanish-English dictionary-how can one read a book without understanding so many of the words?
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 3, 2013 11:32:32 AM PDT
Feminist Texican Reads says:
Did your basic Spanish-English dictionary also lack the word "point?" Because "poenta" is not a word.
"Literature is not a stage for language and national equal opportunity"
Actually, that's exactly what it is. You are aware that literature originated and *gasp* is still created in non-English speaking countries, yes?
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 5, 2013 7:04:02 PM PDT
Nah, not 15% of the words in the collection are "Spanglish"...probably more like 1%. I know ZERO Spanish and was still able to fully appreciate the beauty of the writing, figuring out the random Spanish words just from the context. (In a similar vein, when I first read Anthony Burgess's "Clockwork Orange" years ago -- which is probably 5% MADE-UP language -- I, after a slow start, quickly became immersed in the small part of the made-up language and could figure everything out--from the context of 95% of the surrounding writing. I think the key is... Don't freak out if you come upon an unknown word! Trust the author a bit to provide you with what you need to know to get along in his/her narrative!) :)
As for "literature is not a stage for language and national equal opportunity": Diaz's stories are not at all this kind of linguistic battlefield. I'm an Anglo Texan, born and raised, and used to hearing Spanish. I also lived in Diaz's home-turf of Central Jersey for 3 years, where Dominicans are many and Spanish liberally tossed around. Diaz isn't making a "statement" by tossing in Spanish and Spanglish, he's being true to what he heard in his environment. That shouldn't be seen as any sort of "threat."
Posted on Dec 23, 2013 9:07:50 AM PST
D. Rodriguez says:
A thorough and insightful, well-written review! Thanks. I just picked it up yesterday from La Casa Azul (best bookstore in NYC!) and wanted to read some reviews. Judging from Diaz's previous books, to simply call it misogynistic, as some reviewers have, is shallow. But I don't want to be one of those who comment without reading the book, but I had to comment on your review. Thanks!
In reply to an earlier post on Apr 20, 2015 6:00:50 PM PDT
Lee Cronbach says:
?? Feminist Texican gave a very precise summary of what the book is ABOUT:
sorry, it IS all about the disastrous effects of machoism and/or Don Juanism/promiscuity
on the man who suffers from it. Diaz tells you this in the title and, in aching detail,
in the last, great story. The 'ideological subtext' is the plot. Really.