I spent April reading one of the most hyped literary fiction books of the last year: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. At over 800 pages, it wasn’t a quick read, but neither was it as laboring and upsetting as everyone said it was going to be – maybe I have a heart of stone. I had trouble putting it down, which was surprising because based on reviews I was expecting this book to be ROUGH. I can’t remember the last time I read a better, more engaging novel. The review I am about to write is evidence that this novel demands serious thought.
So, what did I NOT like about it? The novel suffers because of it’s own hype. The parts everyone waxed poetic about (the extreme abuse and mental anguish the main character, Jude, goes through) were the parts of the novel that I felt were overdone and vaguely exploitative.
It felt like a betrayal at times, that a novel so expertly written made me feel the exact opposite of what the author was trying to make me feel. If you google A Little Life you will see an outpouring of emotion regarding Jude. You will also see a lot of hints of the horrific abuses he faces, which is why people label this novel “hard to read.” I got the sense with every escalating horror Jude lives through that Yanagihara was trying really, really hard to make Jude into a Christ figure. It felt like too much, mostly because I didn’t believe it. I don’t believe that one person can suffer all that abuse and then become an extremely rich and successful corporate litigator, for one thing. Sadly, I also don’t believe that someone can be as self-destructive as Jude and still hang on to a loving group of friends. I’ve heard Yanagihara say in interviews that she wanted A Little Life to be slightly off-kilter, like a fairy tale, and she’s right. I don’t believe that someone like Jude could have loving friendships and a successful career while also avoiding professional help. That’s a fairy tale, and it aggravated me.
The main feeling I felt towards Jude by the middle of the novel was annoyance at how he was written. There is so much glamorization of mental illness and suicidal people in fiction. What isn’t glamorized is the people who suffer and listen when their friends ask them to get help. This is serious – I am so sick of reading narratives about the beautifully suffering mental ill person who won’t get help. I resented the characterization of Jude, who is a complete martyr to the image of a mentally ill person who is brilliant and lovely in every way except that they keep trying to destroy themselves.
I nearly rolled my eyes out of my skull every time a character had to take a break in their interior narrative in order to think about how wonderful Jude was. When the novel isn’t focusing on Jude, it follows his group of college friends as they become very wealthy and successful in New York City. We are made to believe that these dudes are somehow exceptional, and I hated that.
It seems like I’m really tearing this book apart, but I do so out of love. I highly recommend this book, but I don’t want to join the chorus of people gushing over Jude and his friends. I am side-eyeing the tacky A Little Life tote bags – I just don’t get it. But, certainly, if you’re looking for a long read by someone who can write, and I mean really write – pick up A Little Life. Hanya Yanagihara is an immense talent for sure.