In This is How You Lose Her Junot Diaz willingly shares a seat on his sofa, a view into the bedroom, and the tensions that accompany love lost. He puts us completely into his world, and the complimentary whiplash is upsetting and addictive at the same time.
This novel continues with Yunior’s life as well as several episodes of familial as well as romantic love stories gone bad. Diaz explores the small actions that merge to create messy relationships and “life messes” in general. This novel serves up a rich narrative of how characters ruin their lives.
The book reads like someone is telling a story, the way a relative would share family secrets. Like voyeurs, we see it, hear it, almost taste the story. Characters come alive; their stories strike chords. As they make the same mistake repeatedly, we see it, they don’t. In many ways, it’s like watching a car wreck, but not rubbernecking for the blood and gore. The characters keep on moving, and so do the readers. I couldn’t put the book down and read it in one sitting.
Dysfunctional family dynamics bombard the reader. Sibling rivalry, preferential parental treatment, father’s absence and/or abuse, and living in far from perfect conditions are themes in each chapter. Love is lost and people suffer. Every chapter highlights struggle, disappointment and loneliness. There seems to be no answers or solace readily available. We turn each page and wonder if Yunior’s fear of Armageddon will be realized in the next chapter.
All of this angst occurs while the characters are always outsiders—alienated from the world around them. The cultural differences between life in the U.S. and the Dominican Republican are magnified and personalized. They’re also never mitigated. It’s more tension that never leaves these pages.
Diaz’s language is a mixture of words we understand, and many others that are mysteries. Some words are Spanish, some from contemporary media works, others seem created out of thin air. These mysterious words require looking at the context and using one’s imagination. It all works quite well. It’s also the written language (journal, e-mails, letters) within this novel that divulge secrets, expose truths and create chaos. Diaz does honor the written word and pay it homage. His unmistakable voice resonates clearly and effectively.
This book is not about searching for excellence or success… it’s a hunt for temporary happiness and coping skills to survive from day to day. Diaz has his players use sex as an instant fix for boredom or loneliness, but it often falls short in more ways than one.
Diaz paints this sad picture, but it doesn’t read as “desperate or hopeless”— it just goes on. The hook-up culture dominates and sex without intimacy rules. That’s how it rolls. The constant designation of women according to their nationality followed closely by a description of their bust and derriere is tedious; I expect Diaz does this purposely. It’s tiresome and limiting to view women in such a narrow perspective.
Infidelity and betrayal are the norm in this book, and both have consequences. Diaz does not harp on the morality of cheating on a lover, no matter how indiscriminate and how pervasive. He reveals that the cost of being a philanderer is anxiety, disappointment and alienation for all parties involved. It isn’t pretty, and it is painful. He shows how the women and children cope with their absent male figure and inadequate relationships. The men are shallow and often cruel. Few characters actually trust each other; there is a lack of authentic, respectful, loving partnerships here as well. Emptiness, self-destruction and self-loathing abound. Diaz shows that this behavior consistently depletes his characters. We see them shrink in their own eyes and in the eyes of the rest of the world.
The last chapter shows some enlightenment and a modest, new beginning. I had hoped for more from this book. I did become weary of women often used only as semen vessels with interesting protrusions front and back. And likewise it was boring to have male characters who are either busy humping or thinking about humping. Maybe that’s how they feel powerful in a world that doesn’t give them much clout. Is that the message? Is the purpose of Diaz’s effective storytelling a search for love, trust, respect? Maybe it just shows the depth of emptiness and a flailing attempt to fill a painful void.