The MIT Press and Harvard University Press have a book club that meets once a month, and in October we read This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz. I’m still the new kid at work, so I’m trying to throw myself into social and professional events at the office whenever I can, and I’ve never actually been part of a book club, so it’s a new experience on multiple levels. This month (well, December, since everyone is going to be busy just before Thanksgiving) we’re reading The Infatuations by Javier Marias, so I’m sure I’ll be writing about that, too!
This isn’t my first foray into Díaz’s works; I was a first-year mentor during my senior year of college, and that year all of the freshmen had to read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I was supposed to as well, so I could help facilitate the discussion in class, but let’s be real — when you’re a senior planning a yearlong thesis project…
So I was partially motivated by guilt to read This Is How You Lose Her, I won’t lie. But I am trying to read more contemporary fiction, and I do like short stories, so I decided to give it a shot. This Is How You Lose Her is a series of loosely connected stories about a number of Dominican immigrant characters. The primary character is Yunior, who appears in several of the stories and is sort of the main narrator. The stories jump around in time, so you’re never quite sure how all of the events line up until you finish the book. Personally, I only like that device when Kurt Vonnegut uses it, but that’s neither here nor there.
I can’t quite decide how I feel about Díaz’s writing style; there are times where it moves me and times where I find my eye wandering on the page. It might be because a lot of the material in the book is about philandering men, and I just keep thinking, “Yeah, because there’s not enough of that crap on TV.” There’s only one story narrated by a woman, and she’s the only female character that I felt had any substance. I would have loved to see a story from the perspective of Yunior’s mom.
I get that Latino culture is heavily influenced by masculinity (machismo), but man, it gets tiresome to read about men who treat women like crap and then have the gall to be upset when those women leave them. (The bookends of the collection in particular had me rolling my eyes.) I really liked the stories about Yunior as a child, and his relationship with his brother and his mom. Imagine my disappointment when he grew up to be a total dick.
There was one story that stuck with me after I finished the book, though. “Otravida, Otravez”1 is a story about a woman named Yasmin who works in a hospital laundry and lives in a boarding house of some sort with other Dominican women. She’s having an affair with a married man whose family is still back in the DR and whose wife keeps writing him letters, which Yasmin can’t stop reading and feeling guilty about. There’s a point in the story while she’s at work recalling some anecdote or thinking to herself where she says, “This country is hard.” This country being the United States, of course. And it made me sort of grateful to be American, if only because I don’t think I would have the emotional fortitude required to be an immigrant.2 I lived in South Korea for a year, sure, but I had a fairly cushy government-sponsored teaching job and my American-ness was something of a novelty there. And that was hard enough!3 It just seems weird that “land of the free” is in our national anthem, and for years our shtick was “spreading democracy and freedom” around the world, but we aren’t very good at extending that olive branch to people trying to make life better for themselves and their families on our home turf. We are not a friendly country, and we don’t make it easy for people to fit in. That story just really brought it home for me, is what I’m saying in a roundabout way.
This collection was sort of meh for me. Didn’t love it, didn’t hate it. It moved me in places, but I didn’t find Yunior particularly compelling or worthy of compassion, and I think that’s the major problem with this book.
- I took French in high school and college, so according to Google Translate, this means “other life, again,” which makes sense in the context of the story.
- I feel like this statement makes me sound like a jagweed, but I just want to say I respect what these people are trying to do for themselves, because it is not easy.
- If I were an immigrant from Southeast Asia trying to make it in Korea, that would be an entirely different story.