This Is How You Lose Her

  • Junot Díaz
  • Riverhead Books
  • 224 pp.
  • September 19, 2012

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist returns with a collection of nine short stories that celebrate and bemoan the intricate nature of love.

Junot Díaz will be appearing at the National Book Festival, which will be held on the National Mall on Saturday, September 22 and Sunday, September 23.

Reviewed by Nicole Gibby Munguia

“I’m not a bad guy. I know how that sounds—defensive, unscrupulous—but it’s true. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good.” When someone begins his tale with a confession like this, you know things are going to get interesting, and fast. This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Díaz’s new collection of nine stories, explores the complicated ways in which love, lust and loss color relationships.

Against the backdrops of New Jersey and the Dominican Republic, Díaz explores the emotional and physical disloyalties between boyfriend and girlfriend, husband and wife, husband and lover, mother and son, brother and brother. This Is How You Lose Her wasn’t written for the prudish. Díaz doesn’t shy away from conveying the physical, if not always emotional, intimacy between his characters.

We are reintroduced to Yunior, a character seen in Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and who is the central figure in This Is How You Lose Her. In the first story, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” we watch the demise of his relationship with Magdalena when Cassandra, his girl on the side, writes a letter to Magdalena providing intimate details about her physical affair with Yunior.

Reflecting on his relationship with Magdalena, Yunior offers a defense of his behavior, remarking: “All of Magda’s friends say I cheated because I was Dominican, that all us Dominican men are dogs and can’t be trusted. I doubt that I can speak for all Dominican men but I doubt they can either. From my perspective it wasn’t genetics; there were reasons. Causalities. The truth is there ain’t no relationship in the world that doesn’t hit turbulence. Mine and Magda’s certainly did.” This is a telling statement, a rationalization demonstrated repeatedly throughout all of Yunior’s stories. It becomes increasingly clear that he is a master in crafting “causalities” for his betrayals.

Díaz excellently conveys Yunior’s voice in bold, colorful language. Soothing and poetic despite its rough edges, this voice allows Yunior’s image to spring fully formed from the page. We follow him as he falls into unrequited love with his ailing brother’s girlfriend in “Nilda”; as he watches his mother struggle to protect and understand his brother Rafa, even as Rafa refuses to care for himself in the face of declining health in “The Pura Principle”; and as he cheats on his girlfriend with an older woman in “Miss Lora.”

One story, “Otravida, Otravez,” feels slightly out of place in the company of the others. Unlike the other eight stories, Yunior plays no role in this narrative. Instead, two new characters, Yasmin and Ramon, are introduced. Ramon, a bread factory worker, has left behind his wife, Virta, in the Dominican Republic, in order to seek employment in the United States.

Yasmin, also a Dominican immigrant, has been living and working in the United States for five years. She and Ramon have been involved for three years, unknown to Virta. Despite Ramon’s insistence that the marriage is over, Yasmin secretly pores over Ramon’s collection of correspondence from his wife, taking a conflicted pleasure in her confusion over Ramon’s silence. We watch the insistent pull of a life left behind in the Dominican Republic, a life that complicates and frays the seam between the “old life” and “new life” of one man.

Despite Yunior’s absence from this story, “Otravida, Otravez” possesses a thread that is consistently woven throughout the book: a lingering sadness that, as these characters move forward into the next phase of their lives, something inevitably gets left behind — whether a faltering relationship, a well-established life in another country or a family member.

Throughout the book we watch these characters as they naïvely hope that their disintegrating relationships could work, despite damning evidence to the contrary, if only their loved ones would hold on a bit longer. Ramon’s wife Virta writes him letter after letter, begging for a response: “Please, please, mi querido husband, tell me what it is. How long did it take before your wife stopped mattering?” In “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” though Yunior admits to himself that his relationship with Magdalena is slipping away, he still takes her hand. “This can work … All we have to do is try.” He later hears his own words spoken back to him in “Flaca” as Veronica, yearning for more than Yunior can provide, quietly tells him, “This can work … We just have to let it.”

Despite the seriousness underlying the stories, the book is not without its humor. As is often the case, we laugh even harder because it is rooted in painful realities. By the time we reach the final story in the collection, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” we hope that Yunior has learned a few things from his failed relationships over the years. But wishing for a clean resolution, while comforting, would be as naïve as Díaz’s characters hoping against hope for a complication-free reconciliation.

This Is How You Lose Her leaves us with a wistfulness that our journey with the characters has concluded, regardless of how we feel about their indiscretions and foibles. Though we may sigh with frustration at their refusal to learn from their mistakes, we sympathize with them, precisely because they reflect the most tender part of ourselves: our stubbornness and vulnerability, our yearning to be loved despite our flaws, and sometimes, just one more chance for a fresh start.

Nicole Gibby Munguia grew up in southwest Michigan on the shore of Lake Michigan. Seeking adventure and the chance to relocate to an exotic locale, she moved to Chicago, on the other side of that same lake. She is pursuing her MLIS degree, so that she can justify her ridiculously extensive book collection as “continuing professional education.”

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