When 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.