A Little Life

A Little LifeWhen I read reviews in which people complain that a book is too dark, I usually write that complaint off with a “too dark for you maybe.” Not many books are too dark for me. My favorite author, after all, is Thomas Hardy, and I can’t decide whether my favorite of his books is Jude the Obscure or Tess of the d’Urbervilles, both fairly non-stop misery fests. Well, I’ve found a book that’s too dark for me. The misery rained down on the main character in this novel by Hanya Yanagihara got so extreme that I stopped being able to take it seriously. If Thomas Hardy’s Jude had additional children who poisoned each other after what happened to his first three children, you might start getting close to the misery inflicted on Yanagihara’s Jude. But you’d need to also throw in a half-dozen sexual assaults as well, many of them committed by monks because of course they are.

This book is getting lots of advance praise, but I really didn’t like it much. At times, I outright hated it. Why did I finish it? It’s 735 pages long! That’s a lot of time for a book I sort of hated. For much of the book, I was hoping things would turn around. I loved Yanagihara’s debut, The People in the Trees, and there were things I liked about this. The fact that it appeared initially to be a story of four very close college friends going through their adult lives together was the first thing that I liked. I’m still extremely close to my three best college friends (of whom Jenny is one), and recent events touching one of these friends has shown just how important these long-time friendships are, how we come to feel each other’s pain and admire each other’s strengths. Friendships have a significant effect on us, but so often in fiction, they take a backseat to family and romantic relationships.

Eventually, though, the book turns from being a story of a four-way friendship—that of Jude, Willem, Malcolm, and JB—and comes to focus on the sufferings of a single character, Jude. Jude’s background is a mystery to his friends. They know he’s suffered an injury involving a car that made walking difficult and made him prone to getting sores on his legs. Over time, they learn that he deals with trauma by cutting himself, so much that he’s never seen without long sleeves on. He has no family, avoids all romantic relationships, will not discuss sex, and refuses to seek any sort of psychological help, relying on his doctor friend Andy to bandage his wounds and treat his infections.

Over the course of the novel, we learn of Jude’s past traumas and watch their aftereffects unspool in the present. The story of his past is indeed harrowing, involving serious abuse of the type that does happen to many young people today. But the extreme nature of the abuse turns it into almost a cartoon. Every monk at the monastery where he was raised beats him or rapes him or both—and tells him he’s to blame because of something he did as a baby. All the adults at the home he ends up at are abusive. Every man he hitches a ride with wants sex. His first real boyfriend isn’t just mean about his injuries—he also throws him down the stairs. It’s too much.

On top of that, there’s watching Jude manage his psychological pain by cutting himself, again and again over more than 20 years, to the point that there’s no unscarred flesh left to cut. The people closest to him know about it, but the only thing they ever do is give him stern talkings to and remove his hidden cache of razor blades. To be clear, I don’t believe Jude’s friends can or necessarily even should force him to get help, and getting help for mental illness can be complex and scary, but I also couldn’t believe they would stand by and watch for more than 20 years. The correct course would be difficult to discern, it’s true, but we rarely see anyone seriously grappling with the difficulty. We’re told again and again and again how much Jude hates himself and how he feels he deserves to suffer. We’re told that his friends are sad and don’t know what to do. The struggle is understandable, but there’s no deep dive into just how complicated it is to know what to do. Instead, we get the same, fairly shallow debate repeated ad nauseam.

I have other, smaller complaints, such as the fact that, despite all the tragedy, the novel seems out of touch with how the world works for ordinary people. After a few initial lean years, these friends all become very successful and very rich, able to own multiple homes and travel anywhere. This seems unlikely. I was also disappointed at first that what appeared to be a story about close friendship turned into a story of romantic love, although I grew to find that romance genuinely moving and one of the novel’s brighter spots. Plus, some of the problems that needed addressing wouldn’t have worked in a different relationship. I just want more stories focused on intimate friendships, and I was hoping this would be one.

A recent piece in Vogue reveals that this novel was written over 18 months and that Yangihara’s editor wanted her to cut it by a third, which she refused to do. People in the Trees, in contrast, took 18 years and isn’t quite 500 pages long. This newer book feels both knocked together and bloated. Is it a story about friendship? About one man’s trauma? About how to deal others’ pain? About doomed love? All of these things could fit in a single novel, but one of them needs to be the core idea, around which everything else coalesces. It’s not clear which of these is supposed to be the core idea.

I kept reading this book even after I realized I wasn’t enjoying it because I hoped it would turn around. When I realized it wouldn’t, I’d gotten to a point where I was grimly fascinated by it. But it was the fascination of watching a disaster, wondering how bad it will get. Despite its length, it does read quickly. I only seriously considered putting it aside once, when a violent scene hit a little too close to home for me.

This book, which is being published March 10, has been getting near-universal advance praise among critics and bloggers, so my view is certainly a minority one. So far, only Other Jenny at Reading the End has had a similarly negative reaction to mine. I’ll be curious to see if more detractors emerge as the book reaches the wider reading public. I’m finding the accolades slightly bewildering, but I stand by my minority view. Your view, however, might be different.

I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration through Netgalley.

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28 Responses to A Little Life

  1. heavenali says:

    Oh dear, it doesn’t sound like it would be for me either and Hardy is one of my favourite writers too. I adore Jude. I don’t mind tragic stories if there is a point to it. Unadulterated misery fests don’t appeal.

    • Teresa says:

      I think all the tragedy in Jude works because there’s a grandeur to it. It doesn’t feel like its supposed to be taken literally but as symbolic of the way we’re all subject to the whims of fate or a higher power. I didn’t get that sense at all from this book.

  2. litlove says:

    This reminds me of my dislike for The Girl On The Train, despite a universal chorus of appreciation for it. I expect you are quite right! And kudos for having got to the end of 800 pages of misery. I believe you and Other Jenny any day!

    • Teresa says:

      I’m often suspicious when I see what looks like universal praise, but I’ve gotten over some of that suspicion in recent years because it’s rare for me to outright loathe a book everyone seems to love–it’s more likely that I just won’t think a book is quite as amazing as it sounded. But this was often quite bad and rarely really good, to a degree that I’ve found unusual in such highly praised books.

  3. I think there is a certain kind of emotional perversity (and I use the word without its sexual connotation, though it sometimes appears in books discussing sexual minorities, unfortunately) which prompts an author to “torture” a character before his or her readers, to just what purpose I can’t be sure. Is it to prove that “other people are worse off than you”? Is it to show “misery is universal”? Is it to help exorcise the author’s own ghosts? Whatever it’s for, it always seems to me to lack something in artistry. I too like Thomas Hardy, but I had the same reading experience with another book supposed to be a masterpiece, and that’s Radclyffe Hall’s “The Unlit Lamp.” Though I didn’t for a moment doubt that every word in it might be true of someone’s life experience, and it was certainly more realistic-sounding than what you are suggesting your book is, it lacked that shining crystallization of the experience which would mark it as art instead of as mere punishment of the masochistic reader by an author who for lack of a better word might be called vengeful. These are strong words, perhaps, for a book that is often proclaimed a masterpiece of the women’s movement, but there are so many better and more sensitively written ones that I think these words justified by comparison. At any rate, I think I will probably give “A Little Life” a miss, according to what you have to say about it; the world is full of books about misery which are well-written and which have something to add to the world’s literary wealth.

    • Teresa says:

      I love what you say here about the crystallization of experience that makes a story like this into great art. When I wrote about Jude the Obscure a few years ago, I talked about how the suffering seemed overwhelming and exaggerated, but this distillation of common forms of human suffering allowed me to see the tragedy of it more clearly than if it had been kept at a more ordinary level. This book, however, felt less like distillation and more like just heaping on more for the sake of it.

  4. Laurie C says:

    I still haven’t read The People in the Trees, so I guess I won’t rush to add this one to the TBR list…

  5. Victoria says:

    You are not the first person I’ve heard say they didn’t like this book, in spite of loving The People in the Trees – I was listening to the Reading the End podcast and one of the Jennys had pretty much the same reaction as you. One thing that puzzles me is how someone with such complex emotional problems manages to maintain a close friendship circle with people from college? That takes work (of the good kind) on all parts. I’m really looking forward to reading The People in the Trees this year, but will give this a miss I think!

    • Teresa says:

      I think Jenny is one of the only people so far who disliked this as much as (maybe more than) I did.

      As far as maintaining those friendships goes, it does take work, but Jude’s friends are pretty determined to put in the work. And Jude really needs a couple of them to maintain a passable quality of life, which helps keep him from cutting things off. Plus, most of them end up living in New York for at least some of the time, which makes it easier to stay in touch.

  6. aartichapati says:

    Oh, gosh. Yikes. I don’t know if I would be able to handle the despair, either. I can only take so many books of that sort at a time. I wonder how exhausting it must be to write the books if reading them can be so tiring.
    That said, I am very excited to read The People in the Trees soon, so looking forward to that, at least!

    • Teresa says:

      I do hope you enjoy People in the Trees. It’s a strange book, but the way it’s put together is remarkable. This seemed ordinary in comparison (despite the extraordinary suffering).

  7. You are a wonderfully measured reviewer, Teresa. I may possibly have liked this less than you, just because my expectations going in were sky-high. With every successive ridiculous piece of backstory for Jude, I kept getting angrier and angrier. Bah. Grumble. This is why it’s a terrible mistake for authors to refuse to take edits — editors are important! They add value and have wise ideas to contribute! (Not always, of course, but often.)

    • Teresa says:

      You managed my expectations well by telling me you hated it before I even started it, so I wasn’t expecting to love it.

      And as an editor, I approve of listening to editors in general but especially in this case. Cutting a third might not have made this great, but it would have made it better. The sad thing is that with all the positive buzz and great early reviews, it’s likely to sell well, which would support her refusal to cut (and her publisher’s decision to publish anyway). But I wonder how well-received it will be over the long haul.

  8. Deb says:

    I think I’ll skip this one. I didn’t care at all for The People in the Trees– it could easily have been cut by 100 pages, plus it seemed quite obvious (perhaps intentionally so) that the main character was disturbed, but we still had another 300 pages to go! I have no problem with big, meaty books (Trollope is my favorite writer), but the details must add up to something. I think Yanahigara should listen to her editor–she needs to learn to cut the unnecessary stuff or she’s going to end up producing bloated doorstops that fewer and fewer people want to read.

  9. Nicola says:

    While I actively avoid ‘cosy’ books I don’t mind dark, but I don’t like nihilistic books and that’s what this sounds like to me. Loved Jude the Obscure, though!

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t know that I’d describe it as nihilistic–she puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of loving relationships despite (because of?) the pain. It just wasn’t necessary to make the pain so extreme to show the value of love.

  10. bybeebooks says:

    You did it. You made me start reading Jude the Obscure. So far, so good…well, what passes for good in Jude’s life. Arabella is off to Australia.

  11. Jeanne says:

    Huh. I loved it. But, you know, reading it with a cat dying of old age in my lap might have put me in a darker place to start with than most readers.

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t know; I was in an awfully dark place when I was reading this. Maybe it’s the nature of the darkness. The events that had put me in a dark place was in a similar category to some of the things that went on in this book (mental health issues, suicide, violent attacks). So all that might have amped up my feelings to make what happened to Jude seem even more extreme.

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  14. You’re much more generous and measured here than my ranting review will probably be. I should take another look at my draft and tone it down some.

    I honestly think if she had taken her editors advice and made the suggested cuts, I would be a big fan of the book. As it stands unedited, the more I think about it the more annoyed I am with it.

    • Teresa says:

      It probably helped that when I wrote this, there hadn’t yet been six months of praise to endure. And I agree that taking her editor’s advice would almost certainly have helped. I don’t know that it would have made me a huge fan of it, but there is the potential of a good book in here, and given the skill she showed in her first book, I know she can do much better than this.

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  16. June Seghni says:

    Finally -I have been the only one in my (large) online book group that didn’t like this book. I got to the point where so much bad stuff had happened that I just stopped believing in it, or caring about it. While friends are declaring themselves devastated/haunted/affected, I have been wondering if I just have no heart, but reading this review I feel reassured

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