Book Review – A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life is the “tragedy porn” equivalent of Fifty Shades of Gray. Prior to reading, I thought no author could write a more disturbing portrayal of human sexuality as a tool of cruelty than Elfride Jelinek. With this book, that torch has been passed to Hanya Yanagihara.

There’s an old adage in writing that an author should make the protagonist endure the worst possible thing that could happen to him/her. A Little Life proved that there are limits to this theory. The author pushed the envelope again, again and again when inflicting misery on Jude St. Francis. She did this so prolifically that the story degenerated into a caricature of itself.

I found the story premise beyond all bounds of believability. Jude had the most original career path I’ve ever encountered. He started out in life as a child sex slave. After being liberated from that ordeal, he became a prostitute. Then he moved on to the role of adolescent sex slave. Following this, he graduated law school and earned a reputation as a brilliant attorney. To make this even more remarkable, while working as a lawyer he pursued a master’s degree in Mathematics; at MIT, no less. Shortly, after this he ended up in a committed relationship with the most popular actor in the world. All this took place as he spent his evenings cutting himself.

I AM NOT making light of child abuse or people who cut themselves. To be clear, I thought the author’s description of the abundance and nature of Jude’s travails very difficult to accept. He endured more inhumane treatment than the ones I’ve described, as well. I’m limiting my examples so as not to reveal spoilers.

While I’m not a psychologist, I thought the character’s traits inconsistent. I understand that childhood abuse leaves scars that never heal. My issue with Jude emanated from him being a brilliant man capable of attending prestigious schools, performing a very challenging job in the face of a physical disability (the result of yet more abuse), and, still, he struggled so much in letting his close friends get to know him. I could understand with Jude’s mental state why he would be leery of trusting people. I couldn’t understand how someone who had his professional life so together proved incapable of opening up to people who clearly cared about him. In addition to his friends, one of his former law professors liked him so much he adopted Jude after he turned 30.

I could fathom that a victim of serial abuse would blame himself. That sort of inhumane treatment would warp anyone’s mind. With such a great social support system around him, I just couldn’t understand why Jude couldn’t let them know the reasons why he developed into the person he became.

I also found the book poorly written. The modern writing mantra is: “show, don’t tell.” A Little Life contained nothing but telling. The author used the third person limited point of view for most of the book. On occasion the author wrote chapters that followed the activities of Jude’s friends. I didn’t understand why. The whole narrative revolved around Jude. The behavior of the sculptor, artist and actor seemed boring compared to the protagonist’s journey.

I had another issue with the point of view. In some chapters the author used the first person point of view. She chose to write from Jude’s adopted father’s POV, not Jude’s. Let me assure readers I take no satisfaction in writing this: I have to admit that had it not been for the pronoun “I”, the voice would’ve sounded the same as it did in all the other chapters.

While I didn’t like the book, I loathed the title. It referred to something I found despicable. I didn’t enjoy being reminded of it every time I read.

The book should’ve been edited better. It came in at 720 pages. As I wrote above, the chapters that focused on Jude’s friends should have been excised. I also believed that had Jude only endured one of the myriad abuse situations, it would’ve made the book more realistic.

The true tragedy of this book centered on its potential. It could’ve been a great story about one man’s struggle to overcome childhood trauma. With some editing this could’ve been an outstanding narrative of his successes and failures as he battled his past. Instead, it evolved into a tedious slog.

With that noted, this book was a finalist for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award. The Economist even ranked it one of the “Best Books of 2015.” I’m not looking forward to someone making a movie out of it.


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