So, Hanya Yanagihara’s language isn’t particularly flowery, I wouldn’t call most of the writing “beautiful”, but so much of what she’s done with this novel feels masterful. I just can’t figure out how she pulled me into these lives so quickly and had me hanging on every word for 700+ pages.
The language is almost straight-forward, isn’t it? No flowers or flourishes. It’s brutal, honest, painful. I physically felt them like a punch to the gut. I read parts of this book in the way someone watches a horror movie, while covering my eyes and only peeking through my fingers. I love that you called it masterful. That’s the perfect word.
I did too! I literally had my hand covering up sentences so I wouldn’t read ahead.
Here’s where I have to step in and be the big bad wolf. I thought that this book was at least 100 pages too long and had at least one or two extraneous characters. Malcom, for example. I found his daddy issues to be tedious. JB, while I understand we needed a ‘bad guy’ and actually enjoyed his addiction to meth I also found to be largely useless within the narrative, especially when he waxes philosophical on his amazing childhood. I would have struck that whole narrative with a red pen. Even Harold losing his five year old son to a genetic disease, while necessary, I felt like went on way too long. I love character driven novels, but this one came off so. tedious. for me.
I can see that, but at the same time I think supporting characters need something to hold them up so they don’t feel flat. There was probably a missed middle ground there, though I’d have a hard time finding 100 pages that didn’t better serve the story by staying in.
While we have those extraneous characters, I noticed the clear absence of women very early on. We see a few women that play small, even vital, roles in Jude’s life…but it’s almost as if women don’t exist. Why do you think that is?
The only clear female character to me was Julie. I did notice the lack of women but only in a vague way. For some reason it didn’t bother me.
Very interesting, ladies. I didn’t even think of this point. But you’re absolutely correct that women are nearly absent from this novel. Do you think this was intentional? Does it mean something? I ask because I have no idea.
I didn’t notice it while reading because I knew the book was going to focus on the friendship of four men. That being said, wouldn’t there be a woman somewhere? Ana of course, but a mom, sister, college friend, co-worker? Maybe Yanagihara left them out because a woman would have kicked ass and taken names. (I’m stereotyping here, but most of the men I know do the old “it is what it is” while the lovely ladies take action and analyze a situation to death.) Harold and Andy tried their best, but those closest to Jude just avoided confrontation. I would have been that annoying friend who asked too many questions. People pleaser/helper/healer at your service.
I think you’re onto something with this. It really is a story about male friendship and most men are raised to react to situations differently than women. (Here I go with the stereotypes!) I’m not sure Yanagihara left women out because she wanted to prevent Jude from getting help, but maybe she wanted to examine the true nature of those relationships.
Yeah, that’s kind of what I meant in that long ramble. I think men’s relationships are different from women’s, naturally, and maybe she wanted to show that.
Another critique I’ve heard is that Jude is put through an unnecessary or unbelieveable amount of abuse. Do you see truth in that?
I’m not going to say it was an unbelievable amount of abuse, because unfortunately that kind of shit happens all the time. Still, at points, I did feel like Yanagihara was throwing as much shit as she possibly could at Jude to see how much the reader could withstand before closing the book and bursting into tears.
There were times I thought he was put through more than was necessary. But it all seemed to make sense as well. After a while I almost came to expect that he would go through more and more because it was the only thing that made sense when I considered his adult actions.
I agree that when you look at it all collected together the abuse can almost seem unbelievable, but I know I’ve been in counseling sessions and heard stories I would never accept if I didn’t have documentation in front of me. For me, the good parts of Jude’s life were almost harder to believe; the scholarship, the amazing job, the adoption.
I totally agree here—that the good parts were almost more unbelievable than the massive amounts of abuse that he experienced. That he came so far and did so well, despite all of the terrible abuse that happened to him; being accepted to college at 16, being adopted at 31, and his other amazing accomplishments.
I’ve had a similar experiences as Shannon professionally and personally, where a person just can’t seem to have anything go right for them. It’s one thing after another and at times with those experiences AND with the book, I wanted to shout “enough already!” I didn’t feel it was unbelievable but absolutely unnecessary for Jude. And yes, I agree when things went right for him, I almost couldn’t believe it. Is my mind warped?
By the time I got to Caleb I felt as if it was too much and yet, it’s hard to admit because it is very likely that there are people that have lived this life. What shocks me is that the original manuscript was 900 pages not 700. I know someone who read it and it was not an additional 200 pages of happy—it was more abuse.
There’s actually an interview between Hanya Yanagihara and her editor that mentions he felt the abuse was too much. But I think Yanagihara had this clear vision of what the end result would be and I love that she pushed for that.
“Everything in this book is a little exaggerated: the horror, of course, but also the love. I wanted it to reach a level of truth by playing with the conventions of a fairy tale, and then veering those conventions off path. I wanted the experience of reading it to feel immersive by being slightly otherworldly, to not give the reader many contextual tethers to steady them.” – Hanya Yanagihara
It’s interesting she said that, because a patron came into the library who felt the story was an allegory. While she thought the book was powerful, she felt the characters were flat and the setting was nonexistent, which made her feel like the story was fantastical. I was mad and confused at her comment at first, because it felt real to me, like reading a case file or memoir. But at times it did feel like too much, with some hidden meaning, and the characters were used as symbols. Now I think the patron makes a lot of sense.
I love what Yanagihara says about everything being exaggerated and the use of fairy tale conventions. In the first few pages I could feel that exaggeration. The hate was so large, the love was so giant, the friendships were so outsized. But hot damn if she didn’t totally pull that off. Within a few chapters I totally believed in these characters and I cheered for their relationships throughout.
I was sold early, too…and so little had happened! Apartment shopping? Dinner? But I really cared and needed to know where it was going.
Here’s where I come out as the grinch. It took me forever to become invested in this book. I was like, “Who CARES about the stupid restaurant? Who CARES about collecting hair? Something’s obviously wrong with Jude—but I don’t really CARE.” Eventually, of course, I overcame some of that apathy, but definitely not all of it. When Jude finally committed suicide I was relieved for myself. (I know, I’m the worst person ever.)
Since you mentioned it, let’s talk about the suicide. I think this is one of the most powerful quotes from the book and one that wraps up so many of its themes.
“And although he hadn’t fretted over whether his life was worthwhile, he had always wondered why he, why so many others, went on living at all; it had been difficult to convince himself at times, and yet so many people, so many millions, billions of people, lived in misery he couldn’t fathom, with deprivations and illnesses that were obscene in their extremity. And yet on and on and on they went. So was the determination to keep living not a choice at all, but an evolutionary implementation? Was there something in the mind itself, a constellation of neurons as toughened and scarred as tendon, that prevented humans from doing what logic so often argued they should? And yet that instinct wasn’t infallible—he had overcome it once. But what had happened to it after? Had it weakened, or become more resilient? Was his life even his to choose to live any longer?
It’s been a long time since a book affected me this way. I felt as if I was in someone else’s hands entirely. I was helpless. I wept numerous times. I wanted to save the characters as I watched them crashing to their inevitable ends. I kept hoping against hope that Jude wouldn’t commit suicide but I knew that he would, eventually.
Despite my flip comment above about Jude’s suicide, I did get a little teary at the end—which is extremely rare for me. I do think that this book is important in addressing the ways that we talk about mental illness, suicide, and even the cycle of abuse. I don’t think that anyone who read this book would characterize Jude as a selfish person, yet so often, when people take their own lives that act is referred to as ‘selfish’—which is just flat out wrong. Yanagihara has done the mental health community a great service with this book. The reactions of Jude’s loved ones to his death are predictable and realistic—but no one responds with feelings of how selfish Jude must have been to commit suicide and I think that’s a great thing.
I absolutely, 100% agree. The end of this made me feel much like the end of An Untamed State did about trauma…why don’t we have more books that address this so clearly? I don’t want to say I hoped for that ending, but I agree that I knew it was coming and felt it made sense for the trajectory of the character. As much as it broke my heart, I would have been frustrated by a fluffy, feel-good ending.
I would have been very upset with a fluffy ending also. It almost would make no sense. That quote above made me think of the letter called “The Baby Bird” in Tiny Beautiful Things where the writer asks Dear Sugar basically, “Why me?” Sugar answered with her story of sexual abuse and at the end of her story replies with something along the lines of “Why NOT you?” When I came upon that quote, I could understand what Jude was feeling in a sense. It is almost like he was questioning his life, his situation, suicide, etc. and realizing it is happening to other people—he’s not special. His circumstances and tragedies are not special.
How do you recommend a book like A Little Life? Every person I spoke to about it, looked at me like I was nuts and there was no way they were going to pick it up. You can’t not include how horrific some of the scenes were or warn people that it contains tremendous amounts of child abuse. How do you sell it?
It’s a hard question, but I think it goes back to our discussion on trigger warnings a bit. I think if you know the person you’re recommending the book to, hopefully you know if they can handle something like this and whether or not it will be a good fit. Otherwise, it’s probably good to give some warning.
Did anyone else go through a major reading slump after reading? Is it because it was THAT good of a book and nothing could live up to it or because of the emotional toll it took? I’m back on track now, but at the time I couldn’t find anything to hold my attention.
Oh, hi…this is me. I’m raising all the hands. I read it in December and I’m just now starting to find books that are blowing me away again. Almost everything I read is quite dark, so I think it’s more a case of raising the bar (which is now incredibly high) than the emotional toll.
Me too. I read it at the beginning of the year and I am just now finding books that hold my attention the way this did.
YES. Everything I’ve read since has been compared to, and fallen short of A Little Life. Right when I was done I knew that I’d found my favorite for the year.
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How do you feel about A Little Life, readers? Do you think it lives up to the hype? Is it realistic, a fairy tale or a misstep somewhere in between? What other themes or ideas from the book do you want to discuss?