Skip to content

BOOK REVIEW: A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara (finalist for the National Book Award)

It would be unhealthy for me to even imagine the things that happen in A Little Life. I admire the fortitude of the author, Hanya Yanagihara, who bore the burden of Jude’s (the main character) life for 18 months while writing the book.
Her fecund imagination is paired with an extravagant gift for storytelling, and I was engrossed for all but the last hundred of its 810 pages, where the story becomes swampy and a touch maudlin.
A Little Life is a fairytale. I’ll explain it this way – imagine living with Cinderella. She is an attractive, but dirty, uneducated, unschooled girl who has been living in isolation in the basement for a decade or so. Then suddenly she’s a princess. She would be charming for a while, but after Prince Charming finds her down in the kitchen having chocolate chip cookies and milk with the cook and learns that she has shared her intimate problems with her ladies’ maid, after he deals with her wish that everyone would “just leave me alone,” after she makes egregious errors like not curtseying before the queen, the prince might get a bit touchy.  “Listen Cinderella, there’s a war going on in Otherland, and I don’t have time to go along with you every time you have to take a walk in the garden with Queen Biscuit and her bratty children, and I can’t wake up every time you have a nightmare that your stepmother turned into a woolly mammoth and is trying to eat you.”
Like Cinderella, Jude and two of his three best friends come (mostly) from unlikely backgrounds, yet become successful enough to 1) have a multi-floor show at the Whitney Museum, 2) build fabulous buildings in Dohar, 3) be an awe-inspiring litigator so successful that his clients fly him to Nepal in their private plane, and 4) become a movie star who stills the room when he enters.  Each of these busy people flies in from Rome for Jude’s birthday party or drops everything at 3:00 am to help him in emergencies. Every time. With no complaints.
Sigh. Unfortunately, I don’t know any people who would so disrupt their lives for others. Up to a point, yes, but every time, with no resentment? Perhaps the point is supposed to be that unquestioning love is redemptive, but despite extraordinary self-sacrifice by a dozen people, Jude is not redeemed. He is distracted at best. So in the end it is sad. After all that effort, he is only distracted. So perhaps the point is that childhood cruelty of the kind Cinderella and Jude suffer warps people beyond repair, though it is admirable, maybe miraculous, that anyone so abused can turn into a functioning, though tortured, adult. (I don’t know about Cinderella — her story stops at the wedding dress.)
I loved the way things that take up whole books, such as homosexuality, being black in America, and various disabilities and disadvantages, flow through the book like pure waters from a mountain spring. Whether a person is black or white, gay or straight, crippled or fully able makes no difference in their social lives. Very refreshing.
The book is peopled by characters like the ones in the Star Wars bar scene. Each has only one or two distinguishing traits, and they are usually friendly with each other. The central characters have accessible names; Harold, Andy, even Willem (that’s a touch exotic, but not much). Outside of the central group though, we meet Sanjay, Lucien, Linus, Phaedra, Cressy, Fausta, Hemming, Josiah – to make a long story short, I loved the names the author chose. I loved the names she gave to the movies one of the characters makes. The fruits of a lively imagination.
Reading a modern fairytale was, as I said, engrossing. The interior monologues critique modern life and human relations, and mull over what is right and wrong, good and bad. In that way, the book is edifying and challenging.
The ultimate challenge is could you do what Jude’s friends did? The answer will almost always be no, but we try. We do the best we can. Yanagihara has set the bar impossibly high
Yanagihara, by the way, divulges nothing in the end pages and elsewhere, except “Hanya Yanagihara lives in New York City.”  But a friend dug around on the internet and discovered that the author is a woman of Hawaiian descent who lives in and is very attached to the part of New York City where A Little Life takes place. She has written a previous novel, too, The People in the Trees, which is only 350+ pages long. I might read it after inserting another author’s work between the two books. We need modern fairytales.