This book has a lot going for it. For one thing, its title is inviting. I often referred to it, wondering how brief Oscar's life was and if the author was wise to give that away, wondering if I agreed that his life was wondrous, and wondering why the author thinks his life is wondrous, since I had my doubts at times.
Oscar is interesting too. He's an overweight Dominican American who is into science fiction and fantasy. Reading about him, reading about his awkwardness, his hopelessness, was amusing and painful. I laughed out loud sometimes, because I have encountered his brand of nerdiness. Diaz makes him likable, even lovable, though you may throw up your hands in despair as Oscar's central quest, love, is repeatedly thwarted by fate and his own idiosyncrasies. I suspect his failures with women will not surprise you if you get to know him.
A quote on the back of my copy states that the book is "impossible to categorize". I disagree. It even reminds me, in many ways, of a novel I read last year by another American with a Latin American background: Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros. In fact, it reminds me of some novels by Latin American authors, not that I've read many. It had some elements of magical realism to it, but more noticeably, it spends a lot of time in the past, recounting a nation's or a people's history through a family's experience. Oscar's family was wealthy and prestigious in his grandfather's time and earlier. That doesn't last the brutal dictatorship of a man named Trujillo. There are footnotes and the narrative text is colorful and engaging.
But the narration of the past is one reason I could not give the novel four stars, though it edges toward it. Maybe it's just me. Maybe I was expecting another kind of story. I loved learning about the Dominican Republic. It was interesting to read a semi-familiar narrative of Latin American dictatorship with a twist: Oscar's constant allusions to the Lord of the Rings, but I did tire of it at times.
I was interested in weird Oscar's immigrant experience/persecuted nerd story. The family background was necessary, I guess, but I'm not sure if so much background was necessary. And if the family history was the point, then maybe I'm not sure how it all fits together and what it all means, especially in light of how Oscar's story itself ends. Part of the story, Oscar's college years, is told by one of his sister's boyfriends. I guess I personally wanted more of that. That character's perceptions of Oscar after having been "in Oscar's head" earlier were fascinating. His sister's and mother's stories aren't bad, but, again, is all the detail necessary?
At least one reviewer panned the book for being misogynist. Well, I can't completely concur. Dictatorships are brutal; women suffer. Attitudes toward women can be brutal; women suffer. That should be portrayed. At the same time, the portrayal of some of the events may have lapsed at times and been a bit too flippant, but even if you are sensitive to it, I'd be surprised if most people would think the text errs continuously in that regard. Oscar though? Is he a hopeless romantic, or is his "love" so unrelated to the actual person he admires that it borders on something suspect, not misogyny but something unadmirable? Maybe.