Book Review: Hanya Yanagihara's "A Little Life"

Hanya Yanagihara's A LITTLE LIFE on Kindle. 

Hanya Yanagihara's A LITTLE LIFE on Kindle. 

Before I wrote a review of any kind for A LITTLE LIFE, I wanted to take time to digest and contemplate what I'd read, as this book is like a substantial holiday meal— so many layers, so much depth of flavor and so intriguingly good (though it's fattening and artery clogging and bad for you) you keep going back for more even though you're beyond satiated. Yanagihara's tome is not for the faint of heart (much like how a smorgasbord isn't for the picky eater). It's an emotional spiralizer that makes noodles out of one's resolve. 

The characters (and situations) are gritty and flawed, confused and assured, cloyingly sweet and disgustingly bitter. They are complex; one minute you love them, the next you find yourself biting your tongue, rolling your eyes or tapping your foot impatiently. And that's what I love about this book: its nuance, its reflection of real life— the good and the bad. LIFE makes no qualms about coddling and assuring you before repeatedly punching you in the gut, asking if you are alright and then pushing you down and kicking you to make sure you stay there. The book is as emotionally abusive to its reader as its most insidious characters are toward the main character, Jude. As it should be. Our experience reading this book should parallel its action. As Jude questions his reality, as he questions his ability to have "a little life" beyond his abusive past and challenging present, we too should be asking ourselves how we overcame past adversities, or how we are pushing beyond present day difficulties. 

As much as A LITTLE LIFE was centered around Jude and his quest for normalcy, what stood out to me most was the strength and patience, empathy and perseverance of the supporting characters. They desired to lift a man they knew couldn't stand on his own but who didn't know what not standing on his own meant. Reading this book forced me to question my patience and loyalty with the people in my life. I found myself wondering, repeatedly, if I would be as devoted as Willem, Harold, Andy and Malcolm— even JB in his own way. We all have that one friend who requires a bit more finessing, but isn't that friend usually effervescent? Aside from his professional accomplishments, there was nothing particularly spectacular about Jude, personality wise. He was a bit bland; I found myself pondering what it was that drew people to him, and kept them there, especially once they realized how closed off and high maintenance he was. Perhaps they were drawn in by the mystery, and stayed out of a desire to crack the code, so to speak. Or perhaps they stayed because they became fixtures in each other's lives, and everyone just accepted it. That's a very keen observation about relationships in every day life: how comfortable and convenient they become for us.

Yanagihara's prose is top notch. She isn't wasteful with her words, nor does she overly romanticize situations. You'd think at over 700 pages, there would be some filler, but there really isn't. Every sentence, every word, has its place. Every subplot is intentional, making it a more generous and more nuanced narrative. We know every main character's strength and weakness, the how's and why's of decisions they make as they move through life. So we are never left to scratch our heads, confused. We can disagree with characters' decisions and wish they'd taken a different route— don't we do this with the people in our own lives?— but because we know these characters' backstories, we empathize instead of questioning or judging. 

This isn't a read I would recommend to everyone. It takes a certain level of patience and curiosity and mindfulness to get through this book (as well as the ability to purge oneself of the empathized emotions). But for those who can make it through, A LITTLE LIFE is a dense, complex meal— savory with bitter notes. While it may not leave you wanting more, it will definitely make you think about (and remember) every morsel you consumed.