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Domestic fiction; coming-of-age novel; magical realism
Yunior’s point of view dominates the novel. He positions himself as an outside observer, a “humble watcher,” who tells of a curse that appears to have followed the de León/Cabral family across three generations. Yunior bases his account of the family on evidence gathered from personal experience, witness testimony, and historical research. Although he has privileged insider knowledge, much of his account relies on speculation.
Dark and ironic. Yunior’s narrative speculates that a curse has followed the de León/Cabral family through multiple generations. During this period, the family has suffered tremendous pain and loss, the accumulation of which gives the novel a dark, tragic tone. Yet Yunior’s storytelling style also has an irreverent sense of humor that brings a hint of bitter irony to the novel’s darkness.
New Jersey and the Dominican Republic. The novel covers three periods, each centering on one character: 1944–1946 (Abelard), 1955–1962 (Beli), and 1974–1995 (Oscar).
History repeats itself across the generations of the de León/Cabral family. As such, traumatic events that happen to one family member often foreshadow the revelations of other traumas that Yunior relates in later chapters. For example, Beli’s attack foreshadows Oscar’s, and it also foreshadows the story of Abelard’s “Fall”—even though Abelard’s story precedes Beli’s in chronological time. More examples of foreshadowing include Jack’s failed promise to marry Beli and buy her a house, which foreshadows the same promises made later by the Gangster. Beli calling Lola “fea” also foreshadows the revelation that she got brutally beaten because she was dating a man married to one of Trujillo’s sisters, nicknamed “La Fea.”
The novel’s major conflict plays out between Oscar and the world. As an overweight, brown-skinned, and nerdy boy, Oscar struggles to find a sense of love and belonging in a society that either ignores or outright rejects him. This struggle is compounded by his family’s traumatic history in the Dominican Republic and as members of the Dominican diaspora in the United States.
Oscar passes through a series of obsessive crushes on girls who never reciprocate his interest. In college, when his crush on a fellow student goes awry, the experience leaves him depressed and suicidal. Meanwhile, Yunior recounts the life stories of Oscar’s mother, Beli, and grandfather, Abelard. He tells of how Beli escaped to New York after her relationship with a man attached to the Trujillo regime resulted in a near-fatal beating. He also tells of how the family curse began when Trujillo had Abelard arrested and tortured. Oscar visits the Dominican Republic and falls hopelessly in love with a middle-aged, semiretired prostitute named Ybón who already has a relationship with a violently jealous police officer.
After a beating, Oscar returns to the Dominican Republic to be with Ybón and is captured and murdered by her boyfriend’s thugs.
Beli dies, and Yunior and Lola break up. Lola has a daughter with another man. Yunior collects and protects Oscar’s belongings and hopes that one day Lola’s daughter will break the curse on the family.