Friday, April 12, 2013

This is How You Lose Her

This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz, is a collection of linked short stories about a group of immigrants from the Dominican Republic and their struggles in the lower rungs of American society. The memorable tales are strung together by those involving Yunior--a reckless nerd whose infidelities are matched only by his longing for connection.

We first met Yunior in Junot Diaz's debut collection, Drown (1996), and he later appears as the narrator in Diaz's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008).  Now middle-aged and a professor at a Boston university, Junior is still self-absorbed and devoid of insights into himself or the women in his life.  "I'm not a bad guy," he reflects in the first story.  "I'm like everyone else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good." (p. 2)

As the stories go back and forth in time, the reader comes to understand how Junior became the misogynist that he is. We are introduced to his mother, who along with Junior and his brother, Rafa, are brought to an East Coast tenement by the father. Both father and older brother set poor examples for the young Yunior.  His father, when he is at the apartment, makes the family stay indoors and severely punishes the boys if they are not silent. He leaves for days on end and eventually abandons his family altogether. Similarly, Rafa objectifies women and goes from one relationship to another. Yet Diaz makes him a sympathetic character--a young man struck down by illness who refuses to acknowledge his losing battle with death. Diaz also highlights Yunior's thwarted efforts--since early childhood-- to emotionally connect with his brother.  Instead, Yunior finds his advances are met with verbal aggression and hurtful blows.

Diaz paints memorable characters throughout this collection. The women portrayed are all colorful, but none stand out more than Yasmin--the Dominican woman who  manages a hospital laundry.  Her boyfriend, a married man whose wife and children are back in the D.R., wants to buy a house with her. We never know if she truly loves this man, or if she and he are driven together out of loneliness and alienation. Yasmin knows that she is usurping another woman's love and the moral dilemma troubles her. Yet she cannot bring herself to leave him.

This is How You Lose Her is as funny as it is heartbreaking. Junot Diaz skillfully depicts men and women battling against poverty as they try, and fail, to live the American Dream. Interweaving literary English with Spanglish, hip-hop dialect, and language from The Lord of the Rings, the book's prose is brilliant .To quote Carmen Gimenez Smith in her NPR interview:  "It is an engrossing, ambitious book for readers who demand of their fiction both emotional precision and linguistic daring." (, September 13, 2012)

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