Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Long and short listed for just about every award out there, I picked up Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life and read about 100-150 pages before putting it down for months because I was struggling to keep my eyes open as I read. The continued raves convinced me to give it another go though and this time I pushed on to the end. Now here comes the heresy about this much lauded book: I was bored. There was plenty that should have inspired an emotional response but it didn’t because I never felt any connection with the characters. In fact, I rooted for the end I knew must come and I wanted it to come far sooner than it did.

Be warned that spoilers will follow in the below paragraphs.

Ostensibly the story of four friends who meet in college, one character quickly takes over the narrative. Even to his closest friends, Jude remains an enigma. They only know him from the moment he enters their lives, never sharing any personal information, staying infuriatingly blank. His history is slowly, over the course of the novel, revealed to the reader and it is a terrible, horror filled history indeed. Jude is literally and figuratively crippled by his childhood, and understandably so given the magnitude of wrongs done to him. That these terrible wrongs would define his life forever is certainly believable. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that there was so much else that wasn’t believable. That this secretive and unknowable person should inspire such love and loyalty from close to everyone around him is not quite believable. Only one person in his adulthood treats him as he expects to be treated and that character is drawn so firmly evil that he was a caricature who only exists briefly in the story to reinforce Jude’s unworthiness to himself.  That Jude and all three of his closest friends would be wild successes in their chosen fields, Jude a ruthless attorney, JB an artist of such renown that MOMA wanted one of his paintings, Malcolm a celebrated architect, and Willem a famed actor on both stage and screen, stretches credibility. That one of Jude’s professors feels such a connection to his enigmatic, culinarily skilled student that he and his wife fall in love and welcome Jude into their family is head shaking. That every single grown man that Jude encountered before college was a sexual predator/pedophile and attracted to him, and I'm not just talking about the creepy men that Brother Luke finds for him (yes, he was beautiful and all that but...) and then all but one notable exception after college was practically sainted is a strange and incredibly unlikely dichotomy.

Credibility is not the only thing that stymied me about the book either.  There is scant character development of anyone but Jude and there's not much development of him either as we have to take it on faith that despite his ongoing struggles to feel worthy, he overcame everything to become who he is presented as in his adult life. There's no credible transition from the abused child to the steely and determined lawyer. There's no nuance here; everyone is either/or. Two of the four friends in this life-saving and amazing friendship essentially disappear from the novel for large chunks of time and the friendship itself presents problems. Nothing in Jude's character makes the reader understand how he comes to trust not only these three college friends, but also his doctor and his professor to the extent he does. All of this is just presented as a fait accompli although trust to this extreme would be a serious, hard earned accomplishment in someone with his background. The narrative was overwritten to the point that this reader wished that the story would just get on with it already (and I'm not proud to admit that I just wanted Jude to die already because I was tired of him--clearly not the visceral reaction Yanagihara was going for). The story felt endless and the reoccurring scenes of sexual abuse started to feel as if they were included for a prurient reaction rather than to add depth to the story. Even Jude's understandable despair got old in this drawn out telling. I know every prize committee on the planet thought it was amazing. I thought it was an exercise in lengthy tedium. In short, I just didn’t get it. And it was a very long commitment to come away feeling this way about it. I wasn’t emotionally drained by the story, I was disappointed, a far less welcome feeling after 800 plus pages.


  1. Wow, what a reaction. I have this one waiting but something has made me resist picking it up. I've put it off to my resistance to books that are over-hyped but I haven't heard anyone say it was boring. I'll get to it eventually. Thanks for an insightful review that gives the other side of the reader's story.

  2. Well-said, Kristen! My sentiments exactly. I've been waiting for somebody ,anybody, else to feel the same way.


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