Monday, June 06, 2016

Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Title: A Little Life
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Publisher: Anchor
Release date: March 10th 2015
Pages: 832
Genre: Adult contemporary/literary fiction
Source: Gift
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When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

A Little Life is not the kind of book I usually read. It took me a while to get into it because it starts out slow, and you have no idea what the book is really going to be about. I also don't tend to like books that follow characters over the course of their whole lives (I usually read shorter books that focus more on one issue or short part of a character's life *cough* YA). Hanya Yanagihara also breaks a ton of conventions of our usual narrative, which sometimes made it a little harder to figure out which character we're reading about and when a scene is set. But despite all of this... the book works. I wouldn't call it an enjoyable read, but it does take you on a very emotional, reflective journey that I very much appreciated.

I loved the characters in A Little Life. Some are more fleshed out than others: Jude, of course, ends up being the most complex character and is explored in the most depth, and Willem and Harold are especially strong characters, too. But I wish we could have gotten to know Malcolm, and to some extent, JB, better, too; they seemed to be equally important as Jude and Willem in the beginning, but unfortunately we sort of lose sight of them as the story begins to focus more on Jude. But regardless, I loved reading from all of these perspectives, and I feel like I learned something different from each character.

Really, it's the emotions that make this book so special. Hanya Yanagihara is painfully, disturbingly honest in her depictions of all the terrible things that have happened to all of the characters but Jude especially. I cried a ton while reading this novel; I cried for each main character at least once, and for Jude approximately a hundred times. A Little Life presents a very bleak outlook on life, and it doesn't hold back, so you do need to be in the right state of mind to read this. Yanagihara's prose is very honest and reflective, and it makes you question everything and think about life in new ways. All of this (in addition to this book having 800ish pages) made this a very slow read for me, one that took me a while to digest; this book moved me so much that it just took some time to really process it.

There are some elements of this book that I found unrealistic. For example, it bothered me that all four of the main characters are so exorbitantly successful and famous in their fields, and that all the characters in the book somehow have enough money to always be jetting off on last-minute trips to different places. Some more professional issues and issues regarding money could have made these characters more realistic. And while I appreciated how much friendship is valued in the story, I also don't know that everyone remains friends, that no one grows apart and just disappears from the main characters' lives, because I just don't think that's how real life works. But, in a way, I just kind of accepted these things as part of the story.

I'm not really sure how to sum up my emotions about this book because I have so many. It's not a book I enjoyed, really, and not the type of book that I could read on a regular basis, but I do appreciate having read this one. A Little Life is not an easily accessible book, both for its length and its honest, bleak outlook. It probably could have been cut down a little bit because it does get repetitive, but its length adds to the harrowing experience of reading this book, so in a way, it works. A Little Life is the kind of book that takes you on a journey that is both heartbreakingly emotional and at times uncomfortably reflective, and I know it'll stay with me for a long time. 


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