Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Review: This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz

This Is How You Lose Her
by Junot Díaz
Junot Díaz's third book, This Is How You Lose Her, follows his 2008 Pulitzer winning novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Yet, with this third book, he returns to a familiar format, world and characters his readers first encountered in his first collection of short stories, Drown.

This time, although again the Dominican immigrant's experience is very much an intrinsic part of his stories, the main theme is infidelity. Using a distinctly male point of view, language that is prosaic and, at times, beautiful, with these nine stories Díaz depicts a critical and distinctly honest portrait of Dominican males and a Latino machista culture bred on infidelity, as per his observations.

Díaz's now familiar character Yunior, brother Rafa, his boys and their women serve as his instruments. The stories, with narrative and dialog from the males' perspectives, are raw in content, and the language is so realistic that oftentimes they leave the reader with a feeling of discomfort. 

Frankly most women in these short stories, even the ones who are supposedly loved, are described in sexual terms or as sexual objects. However when placed into perspective, I believe that Mr. Díaz has written a disturbingly honest account of men with a learned sense of entitlement that leads to cheating on partners in a machista Latino culture where manliness in proven through sexual exploits. (Personally, I've always thought of this phenomenon as male insecurity and have argued this point countless times) Díaz shows how boys learn, by example and encouragement, to become the same type of men who cheated on their mothers, aunts and sisters by emulating their fathers, brothers, and friends, even as they initially reject and hate those same men for their actions.

Women are not necessarily spared. Yes, there are the women who are being cheated on. Most of the stories are named after them: Nilda, Alma, Flaca, The Pura Principle, Miss Lora, -- but there are also those women who knowingly become part of the infidelity cycle -- the sucias, as Yunior calls them. Actions in this collection have consequences as is evident by the title. And then there's one of my favorite stories of the collection, the only one written from a female's perspective: Otravida, Otravez.

In Otravida, Otravez an immigrant woman working as a laundress for a hospital has been conducting a long-term affair with a married man whose wife lives in the Dominican Republic. Díaz captures the hardworking woman's tough life, but also her lack of expectations when it comes to this long-term relationship. There's also a sense of displacement and "not belonging" about this woman, both in terms of the relationship and place (as the immigrant). A need to feel settled and safe and the inability to find that safety, as well as the expectation of being abandoned, let down, and ultimately unfulfilled. This restlessness, the lack of expectations, and the sense of displacement are all found throughout the stories. The book ends with a bang with what I consider the strongest piece of the collection, The Cheater's Guide to Love an honest, fascinating, and intimate look into a man's life after he loses the love of his life. There's almost a sense of the autobiographical that makes this particular story even more intriguing.

Mr. Díaz's grasp of multiple settings -- New Jersey, the Dominican Republic, Boston -- and Dominican/Latino culture is impressive in its authenticity, the details more than show that he has personal knowledge of both. It is important to note that I specify Dominican/Latino culture in this case, as there are some aspects of these stories that particularly apply to the Dominican culture. However this behavior and/or way of thinking should, if not in general terms at least partly, be applied to males in the Latino machista culture as a whole.

I am a bit conflicted about This Is How You Lose Her, but that is only because Mr. Díaz returns to Yunior and the Drown setting. I was hoping for radically different content from him in this new book. However, and here's where my conflict comes in, the theme is fresh, pertinent and controversial even if the format, characters, and setting are familiar. The problem is that because of the familiarity and/or similarities, This Is How You Lose Her invites comparison to Drown, and as a collection in my opinion Drown is a tighter, better flowing short story collection.

Having said that, Díaz's writing style is consistently powerful with a rhythm and vibrancy that keep the reader engaged, although frankly in this collection there are some stories that stand out more than others. He continues to pepper his works with Spanish, slang, and brutally raw street language combined with a beautiful turn of phrase that define him. The subject matters addressed in his books continue to challenge readers' comfort zones -- a fact evident in This Is How You Lose Her.

On a personal note, some of these stories have previously been published in The New Yorker and some might have read them before, however, as a collection with a theme, this is a book that I've already recommended to family and friends, both males and females. We've already begun discussing and debating its content from all points of view. Whether you love them or hate them, the very nature and frankness of Junot Díaz's short stories lend themselves to vigorous and passionate discussion, and to me that's always a sign of a book worth reading.

Category: Literary Fiction
Series: None
Publisher/Release Date: Riverhead/September 11, 2012 - Kindle Ed.
Grade: B

Other works reviewed:
Drown

10 comments:

  1. I didn't read the review. Still debating about reading this book... I sort of hated Drown, so I don't know if I want to read more of these characters. I do want to support fellow Latinos, but really his characters are so unlikeable for me. Have to really think about it some more...

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    1. LOL, Mariana! I do remember how you felt about Drown and the characters from our discussions about that book. I don’t know what to tell you, except that in this collection Diaz wrestles some pretty strong emotions from his readers through both characters and situations. I can also tell you that it took me a while to put everything into perspective and to process the book as a whole. The collection is about cheating from a male’s point of view and he doesn’t mess around in his narrative. So, just keep that in mind. ;P

      On the bright side, if you do decide to read it we can have a heck of a discussion! Personally, I think THAT would be fun. *g*



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  2. Hmmm... something to think about. The discussions are fun. It would be even cooler if we can get everyone to my house to eat, drink and discuss. Let's see if we can make that happen, but first I'll decide whether I want to torture myself with this book ;)

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    1. Oh, that sounds like it be such fun, Mariana. I would love that! Let us all know if you do decide to read the book. :D

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  3. Oh hmm.. I didn't realize these stories focused on themes of infidelity. I thought I wanted to read it, but now I'm not so sure. I've very intrigued by this author, though and do regret not joining you all when the book club pick was Drown.

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    1. Christine, yes, this book is a collection of short stories about cheating -- men who cheat on women. It's really a critical piece in my opinion, but it's really rough reading. I know you hate the subject matter and frankly I was surprised that you wanted to read this book. :) Personally, you know how I feel about it from my review, I think it's worth reading and discussing. As rough as it is, it was really interesting reading these stories from a male perspective.

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    2. There was a cover story on Junot Diaz in the book magazine The Book Page that I picked up at my library and I read parts of the article and I guess skimmed some.. In any case, I was really intrigued by the author and his works so I wanted to check out his latest book. I guess I missed some critical pieces of info regarding the content. Oops.

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    3. Christine, his works are really good. If you are interested in reading them, pick up Drown or The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

      As far as our reading club goes, take a look at my other suggestion for the month of November -- We the Animals by Justin Torres. That was an amazing read, worthy of discussion and the subject matter, although it pushes comfort zones too, I think won't be outside of something you might want to discuss. I reviewed it too... so if you want to read the review it's here. :)

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  4. Yes, the title is really awesome! Although I've stared at the cover for many, many hours and have yet to figure out what the grayish squiggly shapes in the background are. They look like some sort of map, but it's hard to tell.

    Dwayne Johnston (Seattle DUI Lawyer)

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    1. Dwayne, I agree about the title. It certainly grabs a reader, doesn't it? The book is worth a discussion or two in my opinion. But the cover? I don't know! It is not my favorite... and those squiggly lines? I have NO idea what they are! I can't tell!

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