“So, read any good books lately?” one of my coworkers inquires, a followup to my asking around for recommendations the week before.
“Yes, actually!” I burst out. “I just finished This Is How You Lose Her… it’s a collection of short stories about failed relationships.”
“Oh lord,” someone else chimes in. “I’ve had enough of those—why would I wanna read about them?!”
The quip draws laughs from everyone, myself included. But fact is, love as a premise is what drew me to purchase the book in the first place. (That and the fact that it was fifty cents at Goodwill. That and I’d heard good things about it before.) Particularly the blurb on the back: “obsessive love, illicit love, fading love, maternal love.” Why wouldn’t you want to read about love? Our culture is literally obsessed with romantic love. Most of us either believe we’ve found it, wish we had it, or are out there chasing it. I for one am eternally curious about love. I want to understand it. I wanna know what other people have to say about it, their attempts to make sense of this messy thing that is nonetheless so fundamental to humanity.
And I found that Díaz has some worthwhile comments. His voice is honest and sharp, and doesn’t shy away from vulgarities, all of which I like. One of my favorite lines is from the first story: “I’m not really listening to him; I’m thinking about Magda, how I’ll probably never taste her chocha again.” It’s sad but still kind of funny because it’s true: sometimes the sex is what you wind up missing most about someone. It’s striking because it’s something most people aren’t going to admit to anyone except themselves.
I also like how he lets the Spanish stream seamlessly into the English, in a way that makes even words you don’t know the meaning of easily understood through context. (Or maybe I just think it’s easy to pick up on because I took 4+ years of Spanish in school; I’m not quite sure.) Lately I’ve been trying to make a point of reading more books written by people of color, and obviously Díaz fits the bill. I love that his main characters are exclusively non-white. I enjoy how he refers to whites as “whitefolks”, “whitegirls”, etc throughout. The all-one-wordness is othering, a sort of poetic reversal of the way many white folks treat PoC as “other.” I love that he isn’t afraid to embrace a voice that’s authentic to how PoC actually feel. One thing I didn’t care for, however, was his use of the n-word. It wasn’t used derogatorily, more in reclamation of the term, but the way he spelled it out in its full pronunciation still bothered me. Maybe the use of the word is different in Hispanic circles, I don’t know; but thankfully for my sensibilities, its occurrence tapered off dramatically after the first story.
One of the major themes running through the book is cheating. In “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” a couple’s relationship disintegrates as they deal with the fallout. In “Alma,” Yunior’s girlfriend finds out he’s been cheating by reading his diary, and instead of owning up to it he invents a fantastical lie, which results in a predictably hilarious breakup. “Otravida, Otravez” is written from the perspective of the mistress for whom the cheating man has left his wife. In “Invierno,” it’s heavily implied that the father is cheating, or at least that the mother suspects it. “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” goes a far more obvious route, focusing on a serial cheater who’s trying to get over a breakup and chronicling his friendship with a fellow cheater.
I feel Díaz deals with the subject fairly well, especially in the final story where both men get what they deserve. In an epic turnabout, both cheaters get played big-time by two different women. Yunior is deceived by a pregnant girl, who claims the baby’s his and moves herself in. He then takes care of her up until she’s about to deliver, whereupon she reveals the shocking truth: the baby’s her new boyfriend’s. He’s then promptly kicked out of the delivery room—what a way to find out! Something similar happens to his friend Elvis, who fucks a girl while on a trip despite the fact that he’s married. He later travels back to visit his mistress with tons of gifts in tow, because he’s always wanted a son, and even though it’s illegitimate, he’s finally getting his wish! Cue the paternity test, which reveals that he’s not actually the father. Good old-fashioned poetic justice is served!
I also like how there’s clear growth in the protagonist Yunior, who opens with the line, “I’m not a bad guy.” From there he variously makes excuses for cheating, and continues trying to justify and talk his way out of it throughout the stories, but by the end of the book he straight-up admits he’s a royal fuck-up and his ex-girlfriends did good to leave him in the dust: “You did the right thing, negra. You did the right thing.” It’s only when he finally admits his mistakes and owns the fact that’s he’s a no-good cheater that he begins to change and better himself. He’s even inspired to start writing again, with the ex-girlfriend he cheated on as his muse. I have to wonder if something similar prompted Díaz to write this book in the first place… it just seems strangely autobiographical and I know it’s not uncommon for authors to use their own lives as inspiration.
It’s hard to single out my favorites, because I felt all the stories contained something worthwhile, but “Otravida, Otravez” was definitely up there. Notably, it’s the sole story in the collection written from a woman’s perspective, which is probably the reason I liked it. There was one line in particular that stayed with me: “In the bag at my feet I have his clothes and I wash them all together with the hospital things. For a day he will smell of my job, but I know that bread is stronger than blood.” Bread versus blood is a kind of metaphor for how her love for this man overpowers her heart and her morality, to the point that she becomes complacent with her homewrecker status. Although it’s implied that she changes for the better by the end of the story: “That night I give Ramon the letter [from his wife] and I try to smile while he reads it.” This last line seems to suggest to me that she’s encouraging either a reconciliation or a reopening of contact with the wife whose place she’s stolen, but I like how Diaz leaves it open-ended (as is his tendency).
As someone who grew up in a strict household, the way the boys were treated by their strict father in “Invierno” was painfully relatable. I especially liked the scene where the dad forced the son to get a haircut. It reminded me of begging my parents for weeks to let me cut my hair for the first time (which is the opposite idea, but still) and captured so well that ugly powerless feeling of childhood: being constantly subject to your parents’ whims because “adults always know best” and your say doesn’t matter. That’s the struggle of growing up: the push-pull of wanting to earn parental approval while simultaneously trying to assert your independence. “Flaca” shares a similarly bittersweet twinge, dealing with an unrequited love that’s left unexplored in a wistful “what-if.”
The scene from “Invierno” where the boy goes outside and tries to play with his (white) neighbors, only for them to reject him because of his race, was so real and so potent. I suspect everyone of color experiences a jarring moment where their innocence is shattered, injected by a sickening shot of reality. You think later it was only a tiny crack, it was only the smallest of remarks, and yet it stays with you forever, verbatim, and its influence is vast. Often it’s the catalyst that makes you start to realize you’re different—not because you feel different, but because of how other people treat you. The floodgates open and you start to become self-conscious for the first time—constantly, naggingly, incontrovertibly aware of who you are and how others perceive you. You become suspicious, mistrusting of everyone because you can never truly know for sure who’s racist and who’s not. I think it’s just a terrible thing, but learning you aren’t alone in it, that brown brothers and sisters everywhere experience this, strangely soothes a little of that ancient pain, and felt like a balm applied to a scar.
“The Pura Principle” was another favorite. I liked the banter between the brothers especially—savage, even cruel at times, but their roasting of each other was realistic as hell. Sibling relationships are weird when you stop and think about it. Like how is it that you can pick on your brother or sister ruthlessly, yet still be protectively pissed when you find out a kid in their class has been bullying them? How is it you can get into a fight so bad you swear you’ll never speak to each other again, until one of you says something that makes the other crack a laugh and you suddenly snap back to being the best of friends? I don’t fucking know, but Díaz nails those strange, intimate extremes.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that’s where he seems most at home. He even somehow successfully manages to depict a damaged student-teacher relationship in “Miss Lorca,” so clearly the man is skilled at capturing the nuances of love—especially loves gone horribly, humanly wrong. This Is How You Lose Her can best be described as an honest look at love that doesn’t shy away from the ugly bits: and for its grit, it’s earned its fifty-cent way into my heart.~