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By Junot Diaz
New York: Riverhead Books – Penguin Group, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-59448-736-1 213 pages

Bob Corbett
July 2016

Junot Diaz’s “THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER” is a challenging, exciting and sometimes puzzling book. It appears to be a book of short stories, yet I came away from the book not so sure about that. Perhaps this is a novel, but a strange novel where the sections are not necessarily in chronological order, or, perhaps it isn’t fiction at all (perhaps except for some change of names), but excerpts from Junot Diaz’s memory or journals. It’s actually THAT realistic and seemingly matches much of his own life that these “stories” may well be mainly autobiographical. I just couldn’t tell.

No matter! While this “categorizing” of the work was puzzling to me, the content was gripping, often shocking, always believable even if beyond my own experience, and very well written. It was hard to put the book down and I read it in about three days and am sad that it’s already come to an end.

The stories center on the major character and narrator, Yunior. He and his family are from the Dominican Republic. His father came over to the U.S. several years earlier when he and brother were quite young. Finally, in the 1970s, his father brings his wife and children to the U.S. However, they are very poor and in his first year, beginning when they arrived in the New York City slums in the dead of winter, they are plunged into American poverty and lots of snow and cold at the same time.

Little by the stories reveal the harshness, poverty, near hopelessness of their early years and the narrator and his brother are struggling with the American world and their own Dominican ways to be in the world.

Their world is neither a pleasant one nor a “nice” or hopeful one in any sense. The boys struggle to deal with this new world, trying to hang onto their Dominican ways and mindset, yet little by little, drawn into this new world and the aspirations that come with it, at least for Yunior, the narrator of the stories, but not much hope exists for his younger brother who has life-threatening and life-weakening medical problems.

The stories are definitely raw and often shocking, yet always believable, often reading much more like something secretly written in a hidden diary than someday one would publish for the world to read.

The writing is powerful, often very shocking, telling of a world that was totally unknown to me, but I came away from the book believing that Junot Diaz is describing a very real world and one he most likely lived in the very recent past.

There is much that is simply horrible in the stories, most especially Yunior and his brother’s treatment of women and their attitudes toward women. Nonetheless, the stories ring true and informative as well as shocking and at times, even disgusting. This was certainly a new world for me, yet I couldn’t put the volume down and read the stories within just a couple of days. It was a powerful, gripping and at the same time horrible and disgusting set of stories. Nonetheless, I would recommend it to any who can deal with the details of some very very difficult life situations which are much too believable to simply be dismissed as “fiction.”

Below I just sketch a bit about each story, trying not to tell too much of the story, yet giving an reader of these notes, some sense of what sort of tales Junot Diaz presents. The Sun, The Moon, The Stars pp. 3 – 25

Yunior’s lover Magdalena thinks he’s a “typical” Dominican male, an asshole. He cheated on her and the girl snitched! Magdalena seems to be Cuban and a teacher and book worm. They go to the Dominican Republic; however, it is a disastrous trip that ends up being the end of their affair. Nilda pp. 27 – 41

The narrator’s brother, Rafa, is a well-built boxer. He has a lover who is Dominica and he treats her very badly. Finally she just left and two years later the narrator meets up with the girl. They have a short conversation and she just moves on. Alma pp. 43 – 48

Yunior’s girl is the Dominican, Alma. They have a great sex affair, but she reads his diary and the romance is over. He has a second woman and Alma wants no part of it! Otravida, Otravez pp. 49 – 76

Yasmin seems about middle aged and is having a long-time affair Ramon, who has a wife and child in the Dominican Republic, but he has little to do with them. He does get letters from his wife, and Yasmin reads them, but feels little about them.

Yasmin works in a hospital laundry. She tries to help others and even takes on a new and problem worker who is maybe 15, and has a child. However, the young woman doesn’t stay on long.

Eventually she and Ramon move into his new home, which is very run down, but he is just thrilled with having his own home which they can fix up. Then yet another letter comes from his DR family, but their life just goes on. Flaca pp. 77 – 87

This is a very short and rather sad story of a white teacher who sort of fell in love with a black fellow whom she’d met in college. Neither of them seemed to really know what to make of their relationship – was it love or not? The Pura Principle pp. 89 – 118

Rafa, the narrator’s brother, is dying. He doesn’t really know what to do, nor does his mother. The mother did have a group of women who often came to their home and prayed for him, but he seems to be dying of cancer and the effects of the radiation he has to take has also taken a great toll on Rafa.

Eventually Rafa, sort of giving up on just staying and home and dying, takes a job at a local store, The Yarn Barn. For the first time in some while he felt respectable and useful. While working at the Barn he falls in love with a Dominican girl, Pura Adames. His mother is deeply opposed to the relationship since Rafa is black and this would be a mixed race couple. However, Rafa, just needs something meaningful in his life and thus he goes ahead and marries her.

His mother will not allow them to live in her home, so Rafa steals their car, a bed, some furniture, and frequently returns when they are not home and steals money from their home. His mother realizes he is doing this, but lets the money go.

His brother, who had in the past always supported Rafa, really can’t do that any longer because of how Rafa’s choice has affected their mother and what it’s done to their home.

However, Rafa sort of gets his revenge on his brother by attacking him just to show his anger. Invierno pp. 119 – 145

This story is about the boys’ first day in the United State. They hadn’t seen their father for several years and they spoke no English. They found their father’s very poor apartment to be incredible in comparison with Dominican standards. However, it was winter, and lots of snow. The two boys had never seen snow and we quite unused to taking orders, which their father gave with frequency and punishments that would follow if they didn’t obey.

Their first months were cold, lonesome and confusing, even hopeless. Life was so different from The Dominican Republic and it was very hard for them to come to understand it all. Language was an extremely difficult barrier, and they struggled with every day. Miss Lora pp. 147 – 172

He writes this story just after his brother, Rafa, had died. It is 1985 and the author is in high school, just about 16. He knows “Miss Lora” who lives less than a block away. She is a teacher at a near-by school. The author is dating a girl named Paloma, a Puerto Rica girl. At this time the author is simply obsessed with the Iraq War and is convinced he is likely to be drafted and killed in the war.

He is very attracted to this older woman, the teacher, and has sex with her which begins a very torrid affair. In his senior year she even gets a job in his high school. His alleged girlfriend, Paloma, is a great student and gets a scholarship to go to the U. of Delaware. They drift apart, but she somehow knows about his affair with Miss Lora and is disgusted by it.

However, eventually the lovers drift apart and he goes off to Rutgers. He eventually comes back and tries to hunt for her but he was never able to find her even after the internet became a much better place of hunting for people. The Cheater’s Guide to Love pp. 173 – 213

Year 0: Junior has a love affair that ends because he is caught cheating and had sworn it would never happen. He tried to repent, but she rejected him and it was over.

Year 1: His partner used to cook pernil, one of his favorite foods, but the year was nonetheless a year of grief and pain.

Year 2: Finally he meets Naomi. She’s a Dominican but from U.S. She’s a nurse and has a four year old son. He eventually challenges her love for him and she dumps him.

Year 3: He gets into yoga and meets a younger woman. She’s a white girl. He has a problem with his lower back and suffers lots of pain. The doctor tells him he likely has a ruptured disc. He has a short affair with a girl from the Dominican Republic who is studying in Boston. But that affair is over soon.

Year 4: A younger white woman becomes his lover and soon turns up pregnant. She’s been kicked out by her boyfriend and moves in with him since she claims he is the father. She stays with him until the baby comes but then leaves: it turns out it wasn’t his child, but her former boyfriend’s.

Year 5: Finally after some very tough times he is able to turn to his writing to give his life some more solid meaning. Sounds quite autobiographical to me!

Overall the book is gripping, challenging and well worth the read!

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett