#DiverseDecember: A Little Life


Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life

It may be called a little life, but it’s not a little book at 720 pages.  Nevertheless, although it took me a long time to start reading this book (because I wasn’t sure I could bear the grimness) it didn’t take me longer than 4-5 days to read. The style is very fluid and easy to read, although some scenes were (as people had warned me) very painful. If you want to find out the plot, look elsewhere, as it’s been pretty much covered everywhere. I’ll just give you a few thoughts which struck me as I was reading this.

The first thing that struck me is how much like a fairytale the book is: the ‘baddies’ are really evil, while the ‘goodies’ (Willem, Harold and Andy) are unbelievably patient and loving. Yet there is no happy ending – that is a Disney invention. If we look at Grimm or Andersen, there are few happy endings there too, and much darker twists than Disney wanted to translate onscreen. Just like in Hansel and Gretel or Bluebird, we find here characters which appear at first sight to be benign and then suddenly turn malevolent.

The second striking thing is how much this book represents a paean to friendship and love, to the ‘family of choice’ that you create in your youth and supports you through life. It’s not surprising perhaps that the main group of friends (and most of their subsidiary friends) are all childless – and therefore more likely to be able to visit and be there for each other.  In real life, you’re seldom likely to get this level of support. I’ve got wonderful friendships, but we are scattered all over the world (so perhaps this book is a bit insular in its focus on New York). And even when living within driving distance of each other, my experience has been that you spend more time with people you don’t necessarily like that much but who are ‘conveniently close by’ or ‘parents of children that you can share chores with’ and so on. Practicality over real depth. The really intense, close friendships of ‘heart and minds’ fade away, or are reanimated only very occasionally. Not out of ill will, but simply because people are too busy, too absorbed in their own concerns, too unwilling to go beyond appearances (to be fair, this does appear also in the book), or simply unthinking. It’s the casually callous that will kill you every time – symbolized to a certain extent by JB in the book (the egocentric artist).

little2Third point to make – the world of privilege described in the book: the apartments in NYC, the houses in the countryside or abroad, the dinners in fine restaurants, inviting each other to fancy parties, each one of them successful in their own profession. In a way, it sells the American dream of meritocracy: if you have brains and work hard, you will achieve success? How many middle-aged men who have been to good schools can prove that is not true? (And many more women, no doubt.) How would envy from those who have never quite made it destroy their friendship?

The abuse that Jude suffered is of course horrendous, and the physical and mental consequences are heartbreaking. But I couldn’t help but wonder what happens to the many victims of abuse who do not have the money or support to create a comfortable lifestyle for themselves, pay for medical supervision or transform their homes to cope with disabilities? How many do not find those well-meaning and wealthy people to protect them? At first I was mildly annoyed by this, but then I thought that perhaps that is precisely the point the author wants to make: that even where the façade seems glittery and benign, even for people who seem to have it all, there are scars that run too deep, especially mental scars. So, in many ways, this feels like a critique of the ‘cult of positive thinking’ in American society, the insistence that everything can be ‘fixed’ – through therapy or money or medical intervention.

Fourth element, or perhaps I should have put it first, as it is an entry for #DiverseDecember after all, is about diversity. It’s only lightly touched upon – JB is the most vocal one about race, while for the other friends it seems more of a non-issue. I really enjoyed that aspect of it, especially Jude as the ‘post-man’, post-race, post-sexual, and the fact that the friends belong to all ethnic groups and all sexual persuasions, and that male friendship is a lot more nuanced and touching than we give it credit for.

Author photo from The Guardian.
Author photo from The Guardian.

Finally, stylistically I found this book quite interesting. The author seemed to be breaking all the rules that us debut novelists are taught. A chapter very often starts with a jump in time and a character sitting somewhere just before a momentous event and remembering something from the past. Then we get a flashback – not just a short one, but one that goes on and on for pages, leads to another memory then another, and so on until we forget about the opening setting until we are brought back with a jolt to it twenty pages later, by which point we’ve stopped caring about it. I’m not saying that isn’t how the mind works – and Virginia Woolf or James Joyce do it very successfully – but this is not that kind of book. Not experimental enough. Instead, it piles on both incidents and thoughts, and many of the most important events seem to take place off-stage and are just remembered by the characters. Practices that newbie writers are told to avoid – and yet Yanagihara has been praised for her style, which reminds me a little of Balzac or 19th century Russian novelists. Which goes to show that you need to write as you see fit and critics or teachers be damned!

So I’ve got mixed feelings about this book. It certainly didn’t leave me indifferent, but I cannot say I loved it. What about you? Who has braved reading the book and what did you think of it?

For other views on this book, see Simon Savidge , Naomi Frisby and Lizzi at Little Words .



33 thoughts on “#DiverseDecember: A Little Life”

  1. Interesting to read your analysis from a ‘ writer’s point of view’ . It never occurs to me to look a book that way because I don’t know what to look for! I agree with your remark ” write as you see fit and critics be damned!” Yes, I braved reading the book.
    At times this book is breathtakingly beautiful and at other times difficult to read (abuse scenes). But that is what life is about… sheer happiness or devastating pain.
    Powerful were the moments when…
    …I felt Yanagihara described something I had experienced:
    The whiff of cologne that you follow as it slips by = memory of someone in your past.
    The way you stare at a photograph = evidence that someone was in your life, frozen in time forever.
    I have mixed feelings but glad I experienced Yanagihara.

    1. Glad to hear I’m not the only one with mixed feelings – most people I’ve read or heard so far have been overwhelmingly in favour if it, so I felt a bit ungracious in my critique.

  2. A very thoughtful review. I’ve read several bloggers’ comments on this book, and they’ve mostly been on the negative side. I can see there are positives, but I don’t know if they’re worth the pain!

    1. That’s why I hesitated for so long before reading it. I’ve actually seen mostly positive reviews, so felt a bit grouchy and ungenerous when writing this.

  3. Because my hands are wrecked, I by-passed that thick book at the library. But your review certainly intrigued me. I used to have the sort of friends you describe, until I didn’t. Self-exile someone might call it. It was wonderful and I miss that.
    But–I loathe long flashbacks. Once found myself confronted with a 70 page flashback and just skipped it. Didn’t miss it. Not sure that would work with A Little Life.

    1. No, the flashbacks are in many ways the whole point of the book. I miss having those kind of friends too – although I wondered if the author is replacing the American dream of material success and family bliss with a beguiling but perhaps unrealistic dream of friendship.

  4. Excellent review, Marina. I’ve been vacillating backwards and forwards about reading this and am still not sure. It’s so very long and I often find that frustrating. If every page justfies itself – or perhaps the vast majority – that’s fine but it’s usually not the case. However, your description of its portrayal of friendship is very persuasive.

    1. It’s not all painful. There are many charming moments too, descriptions of happiness, excellent characterization. I have to admit though that I had to steel myself at some of the more graphic scenes of self-harm in particular.

  5. I have this to read but I’m becoming more and more of the mind that it isn’t for me. I’ve read a few pages of it but I’m not eager to get back to it. I think I may give it one more go and then feedback to the publisher of its not for me. Great review though, fair. 🙂

    1. Thank you, I was thinking out loud in a way for this review. I was impressed by the ambition of the book but was not swept away by it. I felt it was ‘worthy’ (in terms of subject matter and the characters it depicts) but not something to fall in love with. And goodness knows, I read more than my fair share of dark books.

  6. Interesting to read your review ….I too had very mixed feelings about the book . It’s lack of historical anchoring is what really began to annoy me ….there were political events which must have touched Jude and his friends( Vietnam , gay rights, 9/11) which were unmentioned. I would agree that it is a book that despite its flaws and clunky style does ‘get’ to you ….it’s prob one of the books I’ve discussed the most in 2015 !

    1. That was another element I had on my list – the lack of time setting – but the review was getting too long. I believe the author said that she intended it to be ‘ahistorical’, almost like a fable, but to me it felt more like a turning inwards and deliberate blindness to world events (which makes you view the protagonists with a bit more suspicion as being in a sort of ivory tower).

  7. Despite its flaws, I loved this book. Interesting comment on the characters’ privilege, Marina, and the level of care that meant they were able to access. Yanagihara’s said this was deliberate, that she wanted to show that people from all walks of life dealt with abuse, that money and privilege can only cushion, not protect.

  8. An excellent reflection on the book, Marina Sofia. I’ve honestly been wavering about reading it, because it’s so painful. Still, fluid and engaging writing is fluid and engaging writing. And it sounds as though parts of it really do get one thinking. I’m glad you found it worth the read, even if you can’t say you loved it.

    1. It is a memorable book in many ways, but not always in the ways I like my books to be memorable. And the style is not always beautiful – at times it tries too hard, or else becomes clunky. Maybe it’s hard to sustain something at a consistent level over the course of so many pages.

  9. First off, I feel relieved to have found a post by you, and that too about a volume languishing unruffled in my bookcase. The downside of having subscribed to too many blogs is I miss on the posts of the bloggers I prefer in the WordPress Reader. Time to prune that list?

    I am glad you didn’t write about the plot, or the absence of it —and it doesn’t bother me one bit— but the grimness you have hinted at may detain me further from going ahead. Thanks!

    1. Oh, welcome back, I’ve missed you! But I know just what you mean about subscribing to too many blogs…
      It’s not that there is no plot in this book – if anything, you might almost say that there is too much of it, as event piles on after event – telling a whole life story, after all. And the author does an impressive feat of drip-feeding us information about Jude’s past, which adds to the suspense. But the plot doesn’t feel like the main focus of the book – it’s all about the characters.

        1. Good luck, bon courage (as they say here in France) and let me know what you thought of it when you’re done… if you do decide to read it.

  10. An excellent post, Marina. I haven’t been in the least tempted to read this book, partly because it’s so long, but mainly because I don’t think I could bear to read about the abuse. It’s interesting to see your comments on the good guys – I caught an audio review of this on R4 around the time of its publication, and a couple of the reviewers made a similar point. Jude’s friends came across as unbelievably supportive, willing to drop everything to help him at a moment’s notice. One of the reviewers’ main problems with the novel was that none of these characters seemed ‘real’ or recognisable.

    1. Ah, it’s not just me then… I thought maybe other people had experienced amazing friendships and I was being too negative. But the author did say she exaggerated everything to create a fable-like atmosphere in the book.

  11. This was such a thoughtful and insightful post, thank you for sharing your thoughts! I haven’t read A Little Life yet, but it’s on my list of books I would like to read in 2016, mainly just to see what all the buzz is about. I’ll have to comment here again next year to let you know my thoughts!

  12. I’m afraid I am still hesitating over this one. The entire Booker list this year seemed to be very miserable and even though I have seen some very positive reviews I don’t feel ready to expose myself to 700 pages of it; certainly, not over Christmas.

  13. I really struggled with this book – and it’s been wonderful to see your thoughtful analysis of every single point that irritated me. You’ve been much more generous than I was in your explanation of these issues and for that I thank you. I’m ashamed to say I couldn’t get over the fantastical wealth and implausible friendship group, but I really like your reading as a modern fairy-tale. Thank you for such a well-reasoned review of a sprawling read.

    1. Ah, good to know I was not the only one irritated by some aspects of it! And yes, I did think it was a bit too sprawling (and repetitive at times). Still, I don’t regret reading it.

  14. A great post. I’m still undecided about whether I’ll ever get around to reading this book, and really appreciate you laying out some of the strengths and weaknesses! The idea of viewing it as a fairy-tale appeals, maybe it will make some of the other aspects easier to swallow.

  15. I’m not sure it’s possible not to have mixed feelings about this book – I can’t imagine saying I “loved” it without many qualifiers! I did really appreciate the way it reflected lives that don’t always get time in the spotlight in art and literature, the child-free unmarried middle age. Too often, those “little lives” end up nothing more than a side-plot-cautionary-tale type of thing, which is such a shame.

    1. That is a very good point – about the unmarried, child-free middle age. Yes, it’s not an easy book to read or love. Thank you for reading my review and for reminding me of it.

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