Book Note: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara


A Little Life

Hanya Yanagihara

Four guys go through their adult lives together. As the story concentrates, the emphasis is on Jude – a sharp litigator with a hidden past that continually stunts his chance for happiness in any and every realm of life. The reader is allowed an intimacy with Jude that even his friends don’t have as he struggles to keep the demons of his past at bay, to recover when they are awakened, and to try to live beyond them. It is dark and sad with glimpses of goodness and friendship.

What I Liked
Yanagihara has a beautiful way with words, and I was moved close to tears a few times by her writing. (Even her “Acknowledgements” blurb at the back was poetic and kind.) I am always impressed when an author has such a mastery of language and timing and context that she can get my emotions going. I liked Yanagihara’s language. Her descriptions, particularly, were astute and precise. They were descriptions of depravity and horror that still further must be difficult to write as clearly – but compassionately – as she did. Unfortunately in this case, emotions only take me so far.

The weaving of the story between and among so many characters and the intersection of so much of Jude’s past and present doesn’t get tangled or unnecessarily complex. Yanagihara deftly maneuvers and delicately balances the ever-present tragedy with moments of kindness.

I liked her use of language. I liked her style.

What I Didn’t Like
There is nothing wrong with a book being dark and sad. Often, it is how we are best able to review our own choices and imagine our involvement in situations beyond our scope of reality. However, the emotional heft that Yanagihara so eloquently conveys only carries me so far. The intellectual fortitude that at some point should force me to consider something was lacking. There were spurts and splutters of insight and reflection that had potential but just didn’t grab me within the context of the story.

Half-way through the book (about 350 pages in) I had a couple minutes of evaluation: should I keep reading? The story was fine and the writing was beautiful, but I wasn’t invested. If my pride didn’t keep challenging me to just finish the book, say you’ve read it, it’s up of the Man Booker prize – just do it, then move on, I would have stopped. I could have happily stopped reading and would not have wondered if I missed something. After I made it through, I still felt that I had not been compelled to invest, but I was glad to say I finished it.

Rather than a book that charts decades of a man’s life, the book read like one really long, mostly horrible, year for Jude. It did not seem like many of the characters changed at all. Many of the scenes just tripped from one improbable scenario to another – both good and bad. Forty-year-old Wilhelm didn’t sound or act or think much differently from twenty-year-old Wilhelm. Likewise for Harold and Julia and Andy and Malcolm and JB. Jude was carrying the story and so his thoughts were mostly of his past and how to manage its impact on his present and future – in all fairness, that was enough for any character to attempt. It was an intriguing collection of situations, no doubt, but the growth and development I would expect at some point from at least one of the characters just wasn’t there.

As A Writer
I really wanted to like this book. There were so many people and reviews who were dazzling in their kudos. I was nearly certain I would like it, and I had looked forward, at least to the halfway point, to reading the 700-plus pages. It just didn’t live up to what I anticipated it would be.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from reading this book was the subjectivity of book appreciation. While I was contemplating whether to keep reading or not I looked up the book reviews from NPR and the New York Times and found mixed impressions. On Goodreads I saw so many people who could not say enough about the impact of the book and its powerful quality. It’s up for the Man Booker Prize – and a favorite. Not too shabby. My opinion is my own – good writing, but I was not as overwhelmed by the story as I was expecting to be. Still, a good reminder for writers and readers. Writers have their stories to tell in their own styles. Readers have different ways of relating to a story and different expectations for a book. The best way to make the connection is to keep reading and writing.

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