The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
If the book's called The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, then why is the madman Rafael Leónidas Trujillo one of the first characters we meet in it? Don't be alarmed, dear readers; as the Domincan Republic's most feared dictator, Mr. Trujillo hovers over the entire novel. So he's important enough to put up front.
Actually, wait a minute. We lied. Maybe you should be really, really alarmed. Trujillo is one scary dude.
In the novel, Trujillo has supernatural powers. Kind of like Sauron in The Lord of the Rings. How did he get these powers? Well, we're not entirely sure, but we think they arise from this thing called "fukú"—a curse put on the New World by the Europeans who colonized it.
Fukú plagues Oscar's whole family, sometimes in the form of Trujillo-style oppression. But it curse doesn't always take the form you might expect. Like, would you have guess that a curse derived from the evil forces of European colonialism could mess up a guy's love life? Well, fukú can.
When he's a young boy, Oscar is a real player. He's good with all the ladies. But as he begins to grow up, he turns into a nerd. A huge nerd, to be exact.
And he wants what most nerds in popular movies want: to fall in love, and to be loved in return. This whole unpopular boy-seeks-beautiful-gal narrative sets Oscar up for some serious heartbreak. His first big disappointment comes in the form of Ana Obregón. She leads Oscar on for a while before returning to her abusive boyfriend. Poor Oscar.
Next, we meet Oscar's sister, Lola, and Oscar's mom, Beli. Beli has breast cancer. Lola tries to be a supportive daughter, but Beli is a tough mom. (To put it more bluntly: Beli is crazy.) Plus, Lola keeps getting this "witchy feeling." She's restless and wants to change or move or go somewhere else.
As a result, Lola and Beli fall out big time, and Lola runs away. Beli somehow finds Lola and brings her home. She then sends Lola to the Domincan Republic to live with her grandmother, La Inca.
However, instead of continuing to follow Lola's story, Díaz then cuts to Beli's adolescence in the Domincan Republic. Serious Time Warp. Díaz sure does love messing with readers' expectations, and breaking all the rules of linear story-telling.
Back in the past, we learn that, like Lola, Beli feels restless. She lives with La Inca, her adopted mother. She ends up falling in love with this sketchy character named The Gangster (foreboding much?). The Gangster turns out to be married to Trujillo's sister. Oops.
Since Trujillo's sister's got some serious power and influence, this is a very, very bad situation for Beli to be in. Some government goons soon come after her and beat her within an inch of her life. Ironically enough, Trujillo is assassinated the same night Beli gets her colossal beatdown.
Don't let his real-life death fool you, though—like Obi Wan Kenobi, Trujillo's spirit is just as strong as his actual presence. La Inca decides to send Beli to NY for her own good.
Then Díaz cuts to a scene featuring Oscar, now in college. (We're already getting dizzy.) Oscar and the narrator of the novel, Yunior, are rooming together at Rutgers University. While there, Oscar falls for another girl who rejects him. This time, the rejection cuts deep; Oscar jumps off the New Brunswick train bridge. Lucky for us, he doesn't succeed in killing himself just yet.
OMG, we've already time-traveled and country-hopped, and we're only in Section II? Now, we watch as Lola leaves the Dominican Republic ("the DR") and comes back to New Jersey. And then we're plunged even further into the past, as we witness Lola's grandparents, Abelard and Socorro Cabral, failing to keep a low profile during the Trujillo regime.
Abelard and Socorro have a hottie patottie daughter named Jacquelyn. Abelard's scared for Jacquelyn because Trujillo has a bad habit of snatching up all the good-looking young girls in the DR and having his way with them.
Abelard ends up in prison for a joke he allegedly made about Trujillo. He supposedly joked about how Trujillo stuffs bodies in the trunks of Packard sedans (which is not funny at all, it's just a fact—Trujillo's regime did this all the time).
So what becomes of the poor, fukú-laden Abelard? He lives through a long prison term, but emerges as a shell of his former life. Oh, and Socorro dies in freak accident, as do Abelard's other two daughters. Beli is the only one who survives Trujillo.
Cut to Oscar in Paterson. Dude ends up graduating from college, despite his deep depression after getting seriously dissed at Rugters. Good for you, buddy. Then he substitute teaches for a while at Don Bosco, his old high school, before teaching there full time.
But he's miserable, and his heart isn't in teaching. So Oscar decides to join his mom and sister for their summer trip to the DR. Depending on how you read the novel, this is either a fatefully bad decision or the super-awesome-joyous-wonderful-the beauty!-the beauty! turning point in Oscar's life.
Would you have guessed that our geek Oscar would fall in love with a prostitute? Well, we appreciate that our boy isn't judgemental about people's professions; he's got a good soul, you know?
While in the DR, Oscar meets a sweet prostitute name Ybón. There's just one (major) problem: Ybón has a boyfriend. And not just any boyfriend. Her boyfriend is the capitán of the police force.
Despite literally everyone warning Oscar that he if he keeps seeing Ybón he will definitely end up in a ditch somewhere (or in the trunk of a Packard sedan), Oscar won't listen to reason. Because he's in love. And what person in love (especially in first love) ever listens to reason?
Eventually, the capitán has his goons pick up Oscar. They beat the living daylights out of him. After recovering for a while in the DR, Beli sends Oscar back to Paterson. Is anyone seeing a repeating cycle here? Jeez.
Drumroll please—prepare yourselves for the dramatic finale. Back in Paterson, Oscar can't stop thinking about Ybón. He asks Yunior for some money, and uses it to fly back the DR. He writes a lot and chases after Ybón, even though he knows that the capitán will eventually catch him. Maybe he's Britney Spears incarnate.
Then, the capitán does catch Oscar. His goons shoot him. But are we to feel bad for our boy Oscar? Well, Oscar wouldn't want us to, we don't think.
Eight months after Oscar's death, a letter shows up in Lola's mailbox. It's from Oscar. He sent it just before he was killed.
In it, Oscar talks about his final days with Ybón—how they had sex and how Oscar got to experience all the "little intimacies" of love (3.final letter.4). He had finally fallen in love with someone who loved him, too, which leads him to declare (of love, and of life more generally): "The beauty! The beauty!" (3.final letter.4)