Is a cheating man incapable of love? Yunior of “This Is How You Lose Her” will always cheat, but he will always love the women he cheats on. In his new book, author Junot Díaz portrays this reprehensible cheating as an impulse against which his main character constantly struggles. By building sympathy for the narrator—despite his obvious moral deficiency—Díaz encourages the reader to dig under the surface of each love story for Yunior’s basic humanity. While not as powerful or extensively detailed as his previous acclaimed novel “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” Díaz’s newest piece may succeed in altering the reader’s judgement of stereotypically terrible behavior.
The narrator Yunior chronicles his past in a series of disappointing love stories, where each story inevitably ends in Yunior losing his lover due to his own faults. There’s Alma, “who has a long tender horse neck and a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans” and Miss Lora, “always swimming underwater, the black waves of her hair flowing behind her like a school of eel.” The way Díaz writes about Yunior’s women betrays the narrator’s deep admiration and obsession with them as well as Díaz’s own ability to create a sympathetic environment. Since women are the subject of each story, Díaz gives particular attention to the descriptions and details that set each story—and each woman—apart. This effectively shows Yunior’s surprising attachment to his various paramours. This attention comes across in one expertly crafted introduction where Díaz sets the stage for one of the sirens who will dance across the pages of his book. “I meet a Dominican from West New York. Fly, of course. Tigueña, with the most outrageous perm this side of Dykman. Lucy is her name.” By introducing Lucy’s qualities and history before her name, Díaz establishes Yunior’s constant search for the next woman “fly” enough to floor him. It’s pure impulse, and before the reader or Yunior himself has a chance to think about the moral consequences, he cheats again. Díaz thus establishes a predictable plotline in each love story.
Veteran readers of Díaz’s other novels will notice that they’ve seen this pattern, and indeed this same narrator, before: while the novel is not marketed as related to “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” Yunior’s voice brings them together, as he also narrated “Oscar Wao.” Whereas in “Oscar Wao” Yunior acted as a passive observer, his own story is featured in “This Is How You Lose Her.” The novel thus contains a full account of sly observations and judgments of his behavior.
Some of the stories stray from Yunior’s voice to the voice of other women experiencing infidelity in their own relationships. All stories, however, are rooted in Latino immigrant culture in New York and New Jersey, and this cultural thread acts as the musical theme steadily beating through every story of a beautiful woman that Yunior cheats on. His occasional use of an arresting second person voice to address himself reprovingly is unexpectedly personal. His liberal use of the second person serves to bring the reader closer to Yunior’s story as Yunior recognizes his own emotional shortcomings.
Díaz thrives on Spanish phrases and linguistic rhythms that may be hard to understand without the help of a translator. Even a fluent Spanish speaker may not understand all of Díaz’s references, as he uses slang specific to the diaspora of Latinos living in the tri-state area. These details help ground the reader in the ethnic context of the story. Díaz’s stories are relevant not only to the particular demographic of immigrant Dominicans in New Jersey that he writes about—in the end, the soul of his book is not the language he uses, but the women who drive Yunior’s narration and reflection. The culturally specific references end up acting not as a barrier but rather as an enhancement to the realism of the novel.
And Díaz leaves a lot of room for the reader to root for his main character. Despite his misbehavior, Yunior is not a bad guy, as he tells his readers in the first sentence of the book. By recounting Yunior’s childhood story and turbulent relationship with a cheating brother and father, Díaz asks the reader to take a look at the whole of his character before labeling him misogynist. Díaz creates a language and a world in which it could be possible to accept cheating behavior as another facet of flawed humanity.
As always with Díaz’s writing, his new book is a quick and rhythmic read, but the sensitivity of the narrator is an attribute not to be overlooked. Creating room for redemption and sympathy is not an easy accomplishment when the main character is as promiscuous as Yunior. Díaz, however, weaves in nerdy references and such corporeal yet romantic descriptions of women that his intention as an author is clear: create a character who can be accepted and loved despite his reprehensible behavior.
—Staff writer Virginia R. Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.