08 March 2015

Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara


Hanya Yanagihara's sophomore novel, A Little Life, is anything but sophomoric. It gets published this week, though I read it in the waning days of 2014, staying up in the night longer than was good for me during the busiest retail season of the year, and finishing it in one last chunk of a five hour reading session on Christmas Day. To say that I was unfit for company when I at last closed the book is to engage in the most careless of understatement. 

This book simply undid me.  And thus it's fitting that a book that was difficult to read is proving difficult to review.  I've put it off for a couple of months now, but as I said, the pub date is drawing nigh, and it's better for me to write my review now so that I'm not unintentionally influenced by anybody else's. 

You will hear two things about this book that I would argue are not exactly true.  The first thing everybody (including the publisher's promotional material) says is that this is the story of four friends.* Not so much, say I. This novel is, more than anything else, a close psychological study of a man named Jude. He has three friends from college, Willem, JB, and Malcolm, whom he remains in touch with in the decades to follow, but he has a deep and abiding friendship with only Willem.  He also has a close relationship with his mentor and father figure, Harold, and his doctor, Andy. The reader may get close third person narration featuring all of the characters, and random chapters of Harold's first person narration scattered in the middle, but never forget that Jude is the sun in this particular heliocentric universe. 

The second thing that everybody says about this book is how beautifully written it is.  Maybe now we're venturing into the realm of quibbling over semantics, but when I think "beautifully written," I think lyrical, poetic.  This book is extremely well written, and Yanagihara stuns (and disturbs) the reader at every turn with her human insights and compassion and generosity. But beautifully written?  Not particularly, in my opinion.  Which is just as well, because to engage in lyrical prose juxtaposed against the story of Jude would seem both careless and cruel, in my opinion. Powerful and stunning, yes, but not beautiful.

In the book, we meet Jude as an adult, but it's not long before the reader comes to realize that Jude isn't like the others.  He's quiet and reserved and he lacks the physical robustness with which his friends are blessed.  He has no family, which is perhaps unusual but not unheard of, but more than that, he has no past.  Or at least no past that his friends know.  While they all sense that Jude's fragile physical condition hints at some childhood trauma, his past is essentially a tabula rasa for them. As the pages unfold, the reader comes to understand some of the childhood and adolescent horrors that Jude has survived that have left him scarred in every conceivable way: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. 

More than anything else, A Little Life is a love letter to Jude, avatar for all of the broken people of the world. It is a testament to friendship and to love, but also to the limitations of friendship and love. In this world, these ideals cannot save what's broken; they can only minister to it. And sometimes that has to be enough.

Despite weighing in at over 700 pages, it is not plot that comprises most of this novel's heft, but character development. With every passing chapter, I came to care more deeply for Willem, Harold, and Jude in particular, and despite having finished this book over two months ago, my heart still aches from the emotional wrenching it gave me. There are books that are hard to put down because they're just that good, and there are books that one needs to put down because they're just that difficult, and A Little Life is simultaneously both.

To say more about the plot would be a bit spoiler, so suffice it to say that we follow Jude and his friends from college to young adulthood and all the way through middle age. Jobs, careers, lovers, spouses, and other friends all flit through, but mostly it's Willem, Harold, and above all, Jude. I'm not sure I've ever encountered such a complete portrait of a fictional character as Jude.  As the reader gradually learns of the horrific abuse Jude suffered as a child,  nearly always at the hands of those who were charged with his welfare and protection, it was sometimes more than I could bear, but as my coworker Nancy says, the readerly exhaustion is nothing compared to what Jude himself must feel on a daily basis. There is a haunting account of grief in the last 100 pages or so that is the most superlative evocation of loss and grief that I have ever encountered. Ever.

This book is not for everybody.  It's possible that it should be accompanied by trigger warnings. But for stalwart readers who value a deep, rich, and emotional experience,  A Little Life will be hard to beat. It's without a doubt the best book I read in 2014 and will probably occupy that position for 2015, despite being only two months (and some change) into the year. For those of you who know me, let me put it this way:  A Little Life has had greater staying power with me than any other book I've read since J K Rowling started publishing Harry Potter.

The cover on this book is pretty terrible, I think. I don't generally like photographs of real people for my book covers as a rule, especially when it's not a biography or memoir. The cover alone will turn many people off, which is a shame.  Let's then forget the cover, and here are some passages that will give a flavor of the writing and the characters:

Malcolm: "He was missing, it seemed, the sense of victimization and woundedness and perpetual anger it took to be black, but he was certain he possessed the interests that would be required if he were gay."

Jude: "And this was worse, somehow, having to have Willem, always Willem, defend him. Against Malcolm and JB! At that moment, he hated all of them, but of course he was in position to hate them. THey were his friends, his first friends, and he understood that friendship was always a series of exchanges: of affections, of time, sometimes of money, always of information. And he had no money. He had nothing to give them, he had nothing to offer. He couldn't loan Willem a sweater, the way Willem let him borrow his, or repay Malcolm the hundred dollars he'd pressed upon him once, or even help JB on move-out day, as JB helped him."

Willem: "Lately, he had been wondering if codependence was such a bad thing. He took pleasure in his friendships, and it didn't hurt anyone, so who cared if it was codependent or not? And anyway, how was a friendship any more codependent than a relationship? Why was it admirable when you were twenty-seven but creepy when you were thirty-seven? Why wasn't friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn't it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified. "

NB: Doubleday publishes this book on March 10. I read an advance reading copy that was provided upon my request by my excellent sales rep. My aforementioned coworker, Nancy, and I both felt strongly enough about this book to make it a selection for our store's First Editions Club.

* The book was pitched to me more than once as the story of four boys from college, following their friendship a few decades into their adult lives. That's not a book I really wanted to read, thanks. People who want to read a book like that definitely would not enjoy reading this one, and people who would enjoy reading this one might not pick it up because they think it's a story they've seen countless times before. That and the cover are the two biggest marketing mistakes I've seen recently with book this monumental.

28 comments:

  1. I'm hearing so many good things about this novel. Your review is great - and really helpful. I'm not sure when I'll be ready to tackle it, but I'd like to at some point.

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    1. It's a wonderful and difficult novel. Not for everybody, but the ones who make it to the end will find themselves seriously rewarded, I think.

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  2. Sounds like a must read, at the very least a "really should read" but it also sounds daunting. Your review challenges me to give it a try!

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    1. You'll be hearing a lot more about this one from other readers and bloggers, I feel sure!

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  3. I love so much that you call Jude an "avatar for all of the broken people of the world". I think some are finding the sheer volume of trauma he goes through to be so much that it's unbelievable, but I think I saw him the same way you did. Wonderful review - we read this around the same time last year and I'm in the same boat of feeling not much else will top this for me in 2015.

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    1. I agree -- sometimes it felt unbelievable, Jude's going from one bad situation to a worse one, but then I remembered why I don't watch the news any more -- there are terrible things happening in every corner of our world and I don't think we can overestimate human depravity.

      I saw the first bit of your review of this book on GoodReads but stopped reading it because i hadn't written mine yet. I'm off to read it soon!

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  4. I'm excited for this one. I loved her first book, which I discovered during the Tournament of Books. She's not a "comfortable" writer, but she's an excellent writer. Maybe that's a better fit for her than saying she's a beautiful writer?

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    1. I haven't read People in the Trees, but I certainly might so now.

      Yanagihara is a powerful writer, for sure.

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    2. To be honest, People in the Trees is a book I have trouble recommending, for reasons that would be spoilers. But it's very powerful.

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  5. Interesting back story on the cover in this Kirkus interview with Yanigahara: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/hanya-yanagihara/

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    1. Thanks for posting that link, Ann. I loved reading the whole thing, and I had the eeriest feeling of deja vu while reading about the cover. I can't possibly have known that, but it felt like I did while reading it.

      I still don't think it's a good cover at all, but it's an interesting back story.

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  6. "There are books that are hard to put down because they're just that good, and there are books that one needs to put down because they're just that difficult, and A Little Life is simultaneously both." This makes me really interested to read this and also really scared to pick it up

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    1. Funny how that works!

      I read Jenny's review this morning and I was almost taken aback by how she was skewering the book, so take my enthusiasm with a grai of salt.

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  7. Thanks for clearing up some marketing mishaps. That's exactly what I kept thinking, "Do I really want to read another book about four friends growing up?" I may have to rethink reading it after all. :)

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    1. It's a dark and deep and difficult and masterful thing.

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  8. I am moderately interested in this... it's been getting SO much buzz, but 700 pages of lit fic isn't my usual favorite thing. But the reviews are so glowing, so I'm tempted.

    And oh man, you are right. That cover is AWFUL.

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    1. Sarah, I think you might want to throw this book across the room from time to time. If you could love a book as quiet and long as The GOldfinch was, and as dark as whatever dark book you might have read, then this could work for you.

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  9. I totally agree with your quibbles about the way this book has been presented. The writing is excellent and powerful, but "beautiful" has the wrong connotations. (I am also not a fan of the cover.)

    I read this book in January, and I can't stop thinking about Jude. Like you, I think he is probably the most fully realized character I have ever read.

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    1. Yeah, I mean Jude is still right there with me. Not quite on a daily basis, but certainly a weekly one, and it's been close to three months since I read this book.

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  10. I love how eloquently you've put forward your thoughts on reading 'A Little Life'.I loved reading it and have just reviewed it on my blog,but it is nowhere near as captivating as yours.I am still trying to master the art of writing a good literary review which I find so much more difficult than writing a mathematical one.
    Congratulations on a job well done. :)

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    1. Thanks for your kind words -- I'm off now to check out your review of this book.

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  11. Thanks for your review of this book. I've been curious about it, but had to get by my reluctance to read it because of the cover. You made me want to read it - but over the summer when school is out!

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    1. yeah, this is definitely one of those books that's better to read in large-ish chunks rather than just a few pages at a time.

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  12. I'm in a no spend era of life - hopefully not too long lasting - but I am at the mercy of my library and said library declares it is on order and I am #1 for the book, but it hasn't shown up yet... I cannot wait to join in all the chatter about this one! Belle

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    1. I'll be on the lookout for your Goodreads posts about this one then, Belle!

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  13. If the book is half as moving as your review it must be astonishing.

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  14. Fantastic review! I agree with you 100% except that though I also dislike photographic covers as a rule, for some reason this one seemed OK to me.

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Please, sir, may I have some more? (Comments, that is!)