This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz is a follow-up, of sorts, to his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The primary narrator of the latter book was Yunior, and he's the star of most of the short stories that make up This Is How You Lose Her.
These are stories about family, and love, and obsession with love. It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea--over on Amazon, I got a chuckle out of one reviewer's counting up all the times the F-bomb is dropped. And like Oscar Wao, there's a fair amount of foreign language dropped in. But I learned my lesson from Oscar and didn't bother looking any of it up--there's enough that it would have been disruptive to the reading, and I could pretty well guess from the context anyway.
The stories roam back and forth across different points of Yunior's life, from when his father brought Yunior, his older brother Rafa, and their mother to the US in the middle of winter, lodged them in an apartment not far from a landfill, and refused to let them go out and play or go to school. It doesn't take much imagination to figure out how that would affect two energetic little boys, or their poor trapped mother. Add to that the father's less than loving parenting and marital style, and it explains a lot about what happens to Yunior and Rafa as they grow up.
Rafa is his mother's favorite, and that doesn't bode well for a boy smart enough to take advantage of it. But in early adulthood, he's diagnosed with cancer, and many of the stories (this isn't really a spoiler, I should add) look at how Yunior copes with his brother's dying.
Yunior himself has some serious issues. When he cheats on his long-time girlfriend (multiple times), is it because, as she thinks, that's just what Dominican men do? Or is he damaged in some unique way? And when she leaves him for the infidelity, why can't he move beyond it, even though his life goes on in every other way?
All these characters are immensely flawed, yet Diaz shows us how they got that way, and we can empathize even when we cringe as they wander down a path we know is going to be oh-so-wrong. And we know why:
"For a few weeks people knock on the door, asking if the house is still for sale. Some of them are couples as hopeful as we must have looked. Ramon slams the door on them, as if afraid that they might haul him back to where they are. But when it's me I let them down softly. It's not, I say. Good luck with your search.
"This is what I know: people's hopes go on forever."
My only nitpick in this book is, unfortunately, one of my biggest pet peeves: no quotation marks with the dialogue. I usually find that distracting, and that was sometimes the case here. Still, the strength of the stories and the characters mostly overcame that.
My thanks to Riverhead Books for sending me a review copy.