This is what I know: people’s hopes go on forever
– Junot Díaz, This is How You Lose Her (72)
This book stared at me for weeks as it sat on the Featured Book wall-display across from the circulation desk I sit behind. I would always stare back at it whenever I walked by. Once or twice I even picked it up, held the spanking new volume wrapped in snapping clear polyester and contemplated reading it. I was already reading a few books, had promised a few others I would read them next, then there’s homework, and jobs, children, applications with their punishing piles of forms to fill that are covered front and back with questions that I cannot answer- I take that back, I can always at least manage question number one: name. After that, my life simply does not fit into the square boxes. So no, Junot Díaz, I don’t have time to read your pretty little book with deckle edged paper. Stop looking at me. Mercifully, one day the display was changed.
This novel wouldn’t let it go however. I was asked to gather a list of books off the stacks the other day, and there it was again, in the New Reads section. Damn it. I picked it up. For the first time I actually opened it. All of my will power was undone in a page – this is how you read a book in one day. I read the first chapter standing, facing the shelves. Then I got a hold of myself went back to my desk to finish my studying, eat an orange, read a long, interesting article about Jane Austen a friend sent me, and then I read the book, drove home, and read it to the end.
The story is devastating, smart, and tender. The idiosyncrasies of Dominican culture mixed with the peculiar regularity with which people, in this case- Yunior, fuck up their lives is told with verve and nerve. The book is funny, heartbreaking, bleak, but buoyant.
It takes discipline and perhaps the confidence from growing up in a loving home to avoid the urge to insecurely fling oneself heedlessly into what looks like Love, or my favorite non-love description: Camus’ vanity and boredom. One of the fascinating things about the life of Jane Austen was that she knew the requirements of her own heart, and just because she never realized (at least publicly) a true love, she was content to be alone and pour her passion into her art rather than forfeit her need to Love truly. Possibly her heart was set on one man in particular, turning it cold to anyone else—that’s a bit of speculation, but there was that Irish fellow…not enough money, family expectations, blah blah blah, we know the story—in fact we know it well because of Austen’s smart, tender books. Funny though, how in both cases—Jane and Díaz’s Yunior—they end up alone. Do the reasons matter?
Like Yunior, Elinor in Sense and Sensibility acts recklessly in her love life. The idiosyncrasies of the English class system mix painfully with Elinor’s sensuality. Elinor is rescued from that cowardly rake Willoughby’s renunciation by Colonel Brandon’s adoration—which is so kind of Austen, but still Elinor, again like Yunior, is a bit wrecked, body and soul, by the experience.
A few years back I resignedly concluded that there is no reason why I should be hopeful. No reason to assume “things will look up.” No reason, certainly, to think Miss Austen had a firm grasp of real life with her wrenchingly wonderful happy endings. This is How You Lose Her is a story that I love for its full frontal look at reality. Yunior is what one might call a “dog,” and yet you feel for him. He can’t love because he wasn’t loved at those critical stages of youth: the plasticity of the heart must have an expiration date. Years go by, and we can’t all have a Captain Wentworth, who has that rare Love that can never bring itself to forsake the lovely object of his ardor: Anne Elliot in Persuasion—my favorite Austen book. I tend to think Persuasion represented Austen’s rewrite of her life, (the article suggested P&P née First Impressions, maybe they all were to some extent, but Persuasion was her last novel…).
Yunior and I would like a rewrite. Instead we get reality, Yunior’s body starts to break under the pressure until the only thing that’s left is his poor calcified heart. Save me! It cries out. save me.
His heartbreak is long, intense, and perhaps permanent. Maybe the most some can hope for is to get over the disappointment of their own shortcomings. It is enough I suppose to try not to make it worse. At a certain point you stop worrying about going up and simply become determined not go down. Jane Austen found her rather brilliant way to not make it worse and yet, her body too failed her long before it should have— desuetude of the heart devastates too. That, is life. Both Austen and Díaz give the gift of hope and humor against despair and cynicism. Laugh or cry, it’s the battle we wage everyday.
The half-life of love is forever. – Junot Díaz, This Is How You Lose Her (213)
*Painting by my daughter, Victoria Accardi, oil and embroidery thread (the tattoos are embroidered onto the canvas).