Book Review: This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Díaz

This is How You Lose Her“This is what I know: people’s hopes go on forever.”

I’m going to be blunt here: if This is How You Lose Her isn’t already on your reading list, add it. Immediately. Mark my words, it will be appearing on numerous top ten lists for 2012–which is exactly where it belongs.

This is How You Lose Her is luminous. Tremendous. Basically, if you can think of a positive affirmation that ends in ‘-ous,’ it applies. In it, Junot Díaz returns to the short story form of his first book, Drown, spinning tales of love and (mostly) loss in a transcendent style that lays bare the longing, the hope, and the weaknesses of the human heart. And it’s funny, too.

I first discovered Junot Díaz when The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was released back in 2007. I was astounded. It was fantastic, and Díaz was so different from any other writer out there. His voice, his characters … to say that they’re like a breath of fresh air is like saying that a glass of water might be nice after a jaunt through the desert. It’s not that there aren’t any other good writers out there (Hilary Mantel and Jennifer Egan come to mind), it’s that Díaz is capturing a point of view that is criminally under-represented in fiction–and he’s doing it with panache. Yes, authors like Jhumpa Lahiri have tackled the immigrant experience, and well, but these are not the emotionally repressed, Ivy League-educated denizens of a Lahiri story. These are fiery inner city residents who live and love and curse and screw up with astonishing ferocity and frequency.

Fans of Oscar will be glad to know that Yunior–a young Dominican man born in the DR but raised in New Jersey (perhaps a stand-in for Díaz himself)–is back, framing all but one of the stories in this collection. Through the course of these nine stories we meet Yunior’s family, profoundly experience the pain of losing his brother to cancer, and learn about his hopes and dreams even as he hopelessly screws them all up. The chronology of Yunior’s life doesn’t always add up (in one story his brother Rafa is still alive when Yunior is 17, in another Rafa dies much earlier, for example), but it doesn’t matter much. Each story is almost dreamlike anyway, so you just go along for the ride and enjoy. Just like you can’t help but love Yunior despite his foibles. Haven’t we all, at some point in our lives, not wanted to be a bad guy even as we’ve actively screwed things up?

Díaz continues to be in top form on every page. I actually ended up reading this collection three times: the first time slowly, to savor every sentence; the second time with an almost manic determination to relive the experience; then I actually went back a third time, armed with a pen to write down my favorite lines on an index card (I ended up needing two of them, despite my ridiculously tiny handwriting). There’s so much that is funny and profound, and often at the same time. Describing the Dominican Republic, Yunior remembers mosquitoes that “hum like they’re about to inherit the earth.” Then he recalls a lost love whose posterior “seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans.” On family: “My mom wasn’t the effusive type anyway, had one of those event-horizon personalities–s___ just fell into her and you never really knew how she felt about it.” On family legacy (destiny?): “Maybe if you were someone else you’d have the discipline to duck the whole thing, but you are your father’s son and your brother’s brother.”

I recommended the hell out of Oscar Wao when it first came out and I’ll be doing the same for this book (it’s times like these I really miss working in a bookstore). This one would probably be easier to sell, too. Oscar was never exactly a book club type of book, I guess, and most women I know who read it were a little confused. This is How You Lose Her should be a lot more accessible for all audiences.

I wasn’t kidding when I said that you should put this at the top of your reading list. So what are you waiting for?

Grade: A

PS In accordance with my recent mission statement about honesty in reviewing, it behooves me to tell you that I won an advanced copy of this book in a twitter competition. But I’ll probably be buying a hardcover anyway–and scouring for author signings in New York City. That’s how much of a Díaz enthusiast I am. (UPDATE: I went to a signing the very day this review was posted. Check out the experience here)


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