This book has been on my radar for a while, ever since it came up my recommended section on goodreads. However, given the volume of the book and the warnings that it contained explicit depictions of various types of abuse, I was not too quick to go on the adventure of reading it. It took me longer that it usually takes, even with longer book and it took me a couple of days after reading it to sit down and write this review. Even while reading it, I am not sure how I feel about it. At times, Yanagihara’s prose and excellence as a writer shone through and kept me reading, but some parts left me thinking this is going do be a rare DNF (did not finish) for me. I did get through it and hopefully writing this review will also help me clear my thoughts on ‘A Little Life.’
THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS FROM NOW ON!
The plot of the novel is fairly straightforward, as we follow four college friends in New York as they make their way into adulthood. From the start, we realize that there is racial and wealth difference between these four friends. We also quickly realize that within group, some friends are way closer than others. Yanagihara is good at giving just enough hints and leaving bread crumbs for the reader to keep going through the story. At first, I did not mind it a lot and was excited to find out more about these characters and their relationships. Somewhere half-way through the novel, though, I started to feel frustrated with the structure to the point I am not embarrassed to admit that I have skimmed through parts of it. The prose and the writing style do show a really masterful author, but I think that this book had to go through couple more rounds of editing that would inevitably make it shorter. On the other hand, this is fundamentally narrative of severe life altering and perpetual trauma that never truly got resolved. In that sense, I guess that the length and the difficulty of the reading the novel could have been intended to reflect the severity of trauma and the difficulty of living with it. With that being said, I am not sure it was entirely successful, as it was dull, rather than profound or enlighting knowledge about trauma survivor.
Officially, this is a story about four friends Malcolm, JB, Willem and Jude who are college friends. But this is actually story about Jude and his life that is so god-damned awful I had trouble sleeping if I read this book before bed. (Last book that made me feel that way was Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood’ and her descriptions of bullying.) The other three ‘main’ characters are given decent background, family life, dreams, aspirations and do feel like their own people who go on to live their lives. However, focus is heavily placed on Jude especially in the later part of the novel, with his friends mentioned only in passing and only in terms of how they affect his life. I think that to a degree the reasons for Jude’s behaviour become clear even before the real extent of his past is revealed. The reasons for his self mutilation make sense and it is clear that the author did do good research on trauma coping and it does overall come across as understanding. Long descriptions of how he does it in long detail were quite disturbing, but in a novel that aims to deconstruct trauma, I do feel like they were necessary. With all of that being said, I cannot help but wonder how realistic was it that so many awful things have all happened to Jude? While it is so devastating that the accounts of priests abusing little boys is not something new in narratives, is it really realistic that an entire order of priests in the monetary either participated or said nothing for years? Is it also possible that one of them simply took a child and ran away, and nobody looked for them? Yes, I understand that Jude was an orphan and that unforgivable things happen to children everywhere, even by those that were supposed to protect them, but what purpose did it serve to throw all of that onto one innocent person. What purpose was it to allow him one happy relationships, with his best friend nonetheless and then swoop in away so quickly. While I believe that the reality of dealing with such immeasurable trauma should be discussed in writing, I do wonder whether it was necessary to turn it into such misery porn.
On Goodreads, this book is tagged under LGBTQI and I do see why. Quite a few characters are gay and after all Jude and Willem are in a romantic relationship at the end. I have also seen it being heralded as ‘the great gay novel’. I am not the member of the community, so I cannot speak from that perspective, but the way a lot of queer characters are treated in the novel is…questionable to say the least. Homosexual sex (if it even was depicted, rather that implied) is only ever presented as rape. While the message that men do get raped by their partners and it is not a laughing matter is significant, I do wonder how this book can claim to speak about the experience of gay men in the modern time. I am curious to continue this discussion of how successful ‘A Little Life’ was in depictions of gay men, so if you have read it, I would love to hear your opinions about this.
With the exception of Willem and Jude who have grown up in lower socioeconomic backgrounds, the rest of the characters in the novel are almost exclusively filthy rich, even for New York standards. Even if they are struggling artists, their families are so wealthy they can support them without issue. As the story progresses, literally all of them become incredibly successful to the point they have several residences both in the USA and Europe, often taking lavishing trips. I often found myself wondering how realistic this is as well. Again, I do know that there are people truly living this lifestyle, but the way it was depicted in the novel did not sit right with me. Additionally, with exception to Jude who was shown working really hard and dedicated himself to his work to the point it cost him his already fragile health, all the others’ successes seemingly came from overnight. JB’s artistic career was given some attention as it was explained how his exhibition came about, but after that, he fell to the background a lot.
The ending of the novel left me feeling really betrayed, to be completely honest. The idea that despite all the support and medical procedures and psychological help, Jude still ended up killing himself sends such a dangerous message. Combining that with Yanagihara’s idea that she wanted to create a character so damaged that they can’t be helped really sends a message that there are people that should be left to die. This is just so incredibly inhumane that I have a really hard time accepting it. On the other hand, this novel is so full of misery and loss, without any glimpse of hope and happiness that I think an ending in which only one of the original four survived to the end should not have surpised me.
Speaking of which, I did find it really jarring and honestly bad writing that there was such clear favoritism of Willem, Jude and to a degree Malcolm over JB. He is presented as spoiled, entitled and ignorant of others’ needs and desire, constantly stomping their boundaries. He is the only one who did not understand or respect Jude’s wishes to keep his past hidden, eventually leading to the friendship’s demise. This discrepancy between the characters felt really jarring as it seems like JB was not given enough motivation for his actions, including the cause of drug addiction. I guess the cause of that was to make the readers feel even more betrayed when he is the only one surviving at the end. To be honest, I found the idea that because he is flawed or a less moral character than the others he does not deserve to live really repulsive. Overall, for a novel that relies so heavily on the internal worlds of the characters I did not expect that one of them is presented in such as drastically different way than the others.
At the end, I rated this book 2/5 on Goodreads after writing this review. I simply found too many faults with it and too many gaping holes to actually like it or be able to recommend it to anyone. Unless you enjoy the narration that reads like Dickens on steroids in terms of suffering but with any kind of…not happy, but hopeful resolution, I would say stay away from ‘A Little Life’. It was a lot to process. I know that Yanagihara’s other novel ‘The People in the Trees’ was well accepted and well liked, but honestly I am not very keen to read it at the moment.
Did you read ‘A Little Life’? What were your thoughts? Let me know.