I didn’t want to hate this book

Trying to turn that frown upside down.
Trying to turn that frown upside down.

I first heard about A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara back in the spring when Teresa from Shelf Love ranted about it at a blogger get together here in Washington when Simon Thomas was in town. Her main challenge with the book, if I remember correctly, was that the constant stream of awfulness in one character’s life stretched her ability to suspend disbelief. Being a bit of a literal reader myself, her description of A Little Life and the drumbeat of horrific things that happened to main character Jude, made me think that I would be similarly annoyed. But after the novel was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize I began to wonder if I should read it. By the time Simon Savidge and Frances of Nonsuch Book and I discussed it on The Readers in September I had heard enough about the book (most of it good) that I decided I wanted to read it. So much so that I couldn’t wait for the paperback to come out as I had intended to do. It even floated way to the top of my TBR pile despite having purchased over 200 books this summer. I thought that knowing Teresa’s complaints about the book might inoculate me from disliking it.

As I began the book I fully expected to be put through the emotional wringer. Instead my initial thoughts were how tedious it was. Four friends at an unnamed college in Boston (probably Harvard) is the kind of thing I would normally eat up, but I just found it kind of boring. It got to the point where I couldn’t wait for the bad stuff to start happening just to alleviate my boredom. That may sound a bit flip and harsh, but frankly it is Yanagihara’s fault. Teresa was exactly right, the amount of awful in Jude’s life defies belief. To the point were one is completely desensitized and it starts feeling like cartoon violence and virtually impossible to take seriously. The only moment in the book I felt any sort of sadness was when one of the characters dies. And the final 20 pages made me think that if Yanagihara had let her editor do his job, it could have actually been a decent book–but that is cold comfort after reading 720 pages.

As I have written about before, I can overlook unlikely occurrences or inaccurate details in a novel as long as the writing is good. But good writing is pretty much absent from A Little Life. Added to the implausibility of all the horrors that befell Jude was a cavalcade of implausible events and one dimensional characters that makes it seem like all of the characters in the book exist solely so they can interact with Jude. Despite Yanagihara throwing in all sorts of detail about most of the characters, none of it feels like real back story, or makes one think for even a moment that any of them exist when they aren’t on the page with Jude.

So much of A Little Life reads like something a high school student might think up. I’m not saying the prose is that bad (but in parts it is), but so many things sound like something a breathless teenager who hadn’t really experienced much of the world would think up. And I am not even talking about the violent parts. I am so tempted to catalog all of the ways in which Yanagihara makes shit up just so she can have a vehicle (and I’m not talking about the one that ran over Jude) to write about a feeling or advance the plot. The one situation that most annoyed me was that Jude was raised in a monastery. Abandoned in a dumpster as a newborn he falls into the hands of some good Christian brothers who take him in, and because the authorities can’t place the baby immediately, he ends up staying there for about 10 years. Even if there is a real life example of this happening at some point in modern history, it is implausible enough that the author should have known better than to include it. A monastery might be a place where a young mind can learn Latin, and mathematics, and piano, and how to sing German lieder, and a million other things (all of which come up repeatedly later in the story and forms the operational foundation of Jude’s later life and accomplishments) but it is hardly the place where a baby could be raised. What about all those years of crying and feeding and shitty diapers? The good monks put up with all of that because they knew one day they would get to rape him? No, no, and no. There are a million different ways and reasons that that infant would have been placed somewhere else (regardless of his mixed race appearance). Even if the state authorities somehow never found a foster family for Jude, the Catholic church has an extensive network of social services that they either run themselves or have access to. If nothing else they would have sent him to some Dickensian orphanage run by a bunch of mean old nuns.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m convinced that Yanagihara had Jude get a graduate degree in pure mathematics purely so she could use the Axiom of the Empty Set as a metaphor. It’s also amazing that this genius gets his math degree at MIT at the same time he is getting a law degree from another school (probably Harvard) and working two jobs–one of course as a semi-skilled baker, which allows us to understand how he can do a lot of wonderful, complicated baking later in life.

Years ago I came across a blog about a gay lawyer and his gay lawyer-in-training boyfriend and their totally perfect life. I think I first found it because they lived in Minneapolis (my home town) but had met in DC (my current hometown) and went to lots of classical music events. At first I thought it was great. But the more I read the more it seemed like it had to be made up. The blogger had created such a magical world of cultural events, sporting events, church going, the most loving family that ever existed, and endless wholesome meals of baked chicken-oh, and did I mention the perfect dog? It all seemed like someone’s very time consuming fantasy. After a while even the comments on the blog started to seem too good to be true. Here is how the blog writer described himself.

I am a lawyer, born and reared in the Twin Cities. Family is everything to me. My mother I adore and my father I worship (my father is also a lawyer). I have two older brothers whom I love dearly: one, 39, is married and has a young son and daughter and works as a financial analyst; the other is 36 and single and works as a civil engineer. My brothers and I were dispersed for years while being schooled and while establishing careers (Boston, Palo Alto, London, New York; Ames, Fort Collins, Denver; Princeton, Vienna, Washington, D.C., Boston), but we are all home now—and, it is my hope, we are all home for good. The newest member of my family is Joshua, whom I met in Washington while I was in my last year of law school and while Josh was in his last year of undergraduate studies. We immediately became inseparable and have faced the world together practically from the day we met. We have recently returned to the Twin Cities from Boston, where Josh gained his Juris Doctor. We have many interests and participate in numerous and diverse activities, yet we are mostly homebodies, playing sports, reading history tomes (and passionately discussing them) and spending time with family.

For a long time this blog drove me crazy. I knew there was something fake about it but couldn’t prove anything. After ignoring the blog for several years someone else discovered that it was allegedly the creation of a middle-aged, female flutist who is also a JFK assassination conspiracy theorist. As I read A Little Life I kept thinking of that fake blog and how much the two had in common (minus all the rape). When I explained briefly to John my problems with Yanagihara’s book he said “That sounds like Andrew and Joshua”. Yes it does. Completely and totally made up and completely and totally implausible.

Some reviewers have complained about the ahistorical quality of the book. All this stuff happening in New York City and no mention of 9/11? To me, that is a non-issue. I don’t mind that she sets the lives of these characters against nothing but their own world. What I do have a problem with, however, is that her characters live in a world that denies the existence of any sort of change or progress when it comes to psychology, medicine, and the legal and social focus on child rape in the Catholic church to name just a few things. I don’t think Yanagihara was making some larger comment on the interior worlds of her characters. I think she is either incapable of writing nuance or was unwilling to upset the naive, immature fantasy she cooked up in her head. The latter would also explain whey she wouldn’t let her editor do his job.

The book is 720 pages and I could write so much more about what pissed me off about it but I feel like I have already given Hanya Yanagihara a little too much of my own life.

36 thoughts on “I didn’t want to hate this book

  1. Rob October 24, 2015 / 9:56 am

    Right on review………….could not suspend belief……….did suspend reading after 100 pages………sophmoric drivel.

    All the best!!!


    • Thomas October 25, 2015 / 7:04 am

      I did want to quit around page 100 but wanted to get to the misery first. For all its faults, once I got further in I wanted to keep reading to see how it all unfolded. But it was kind like watching a car wreck. I didn’t feel good about it.


  2. james b chester October 24, 2015 / 10:18 am

    There used to be think called “slash fiction’ in the pre-internet days. Mostly high school girls wrote stories about gay characters who suffered and suffered and suffered every horrible thing the young authors could come up with. That’s what I kept thinking of while reading A Little Life.

    And I’m sorry, but no New Yorker, no matter how self-involved and insulated they were, lived through 9-11 without dealing directly with it just as no gay man lived through the 1980’s without dealing with AIDS a lot, and I mean a lot.


    • Thomas October 25, 2015 / 7:09 am

      Yes on both 9/11 and AIDS. I was also perplexed by the STD discussion that Jude had with Willem. What STDs could Jude have still had by that time? I can only come up with three: Herpes, HPV, and HIV. Well I suppose he could have had Hep C. He couldn’t have had HIV or there would have had to have been some doctor other than SuperAndy involved in Jude’s life. HPV afflicts more people than it doesn’t.


      • Kate Grey July 12, 2021 / 9:30 pm

        SuperAndy! Hah. I work in health care — no way is that realistic. Or ethical.

        I hated this book so much I now see out the negative reviews for solace.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Teresa October 24, 2015 / 10:32 am

    I’m probably a terrible person for feeling this way, but I’m always glad when another person recognizes this book’s flaws. I do get how it’s compulsively readable, but the widespread critical acclaim absolutely mystifies me. You’re spot on about how it strains credulity at every step, not just with Jude’s suffering, but with the characters’ good fortune. In the end, hardly any of it seems real.

    What makes it especially frustrating is that there was potential for a good book there. I love the idea of a story about person too broken to be fixed and how friends might grapple with that. And some bits, like Jude’s relationship with Willem, are genuinely moving. But there’s so little depth in this story. Cutting back the plot and really digging in to some of the challenging aspects of the story could have made this a good book. Her first book was great, but she spent years on it and was probably properly edited. But this is the book that’s getting all the acclaim, while her other book was only a modest success. So I guess it’s likely that this is the model she’ll follow.


    • Thomas October 25, 2015 / 7:10 am

      I am super confused by the acclaim. Not surprised it is a bestseller but am very surprised it is being taken seriously by award juries.


  4. Heather October 24, 2015 / 11:00 am

    This is the best book review I have ever read. Thank you for always being so honest and true to your own opinion in your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Lisa October 24, 2015 / 1:23 pm

    Nothing I have read about this book – not the rave reviews, or even the middle-of-the-road reviews – has made me want to read it. I’ve enjoyed some of the rants though :)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Katie October 24, 2015 / 1:24 pm

    I quite liked a lot of this book, but I did find the sheer extent of the misery in Jude’s backstory drew me out of the book to question how likely it would be that all the monks, and all the counsellors in the children’s home and everyone who gave Jude a lift when he was hitchhiking to (Boston?) were ALL paedophiles. I mean, I know there are some terrible people in the world and some people encounter more than you might expect, but seriously? EVERY adult in his childhood? Also, I hated the ending. It might be inevitable, but it had such a dismal message that it left a really bad aftertaste for me.


    • Thomas October 25, 2015 / 7:12 am

      And the one nice, non-rapist he met died (Ana).


  7. leonie October 24, 2015 / 3:05 pm

    I didn’t mind the first part her writing style is fluent and seductive but as it went on and on , you and Teresa are so right , I think Teresa voice was a voice in the wilderness amongst rave reviews
    That really highlighted the implausibility of it all !! Well done but it’s praises still go on and I am so glad it didn’t win the booker.

    So Thomas I completely concur , , well said

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Janet S. October 24, 2015 / 9:15 pm

    There are all kinds of disbelief to be suspended in this novel. For my part, I could not believe that everyone loved Jude so much when he treated them so terribly. He would reject their love and friendship and they just kept going back to him for more abuse. In my experience, adults have to nurture friendship, it isn’t unconditional.


    • Thomas October 25, 2015 / 7:13 am

      Yes, yes, yes! I so agree. And they were so effusive about it.


  9. Jane Mackay October 25, 2015 / 1:11 am

    Thank you Thomas, I agree with every word you write (why did I ever finish this?) and like Teresa I’m thrilled to see it getting its richly deserved critical panning…. and here in the UK it was short-listed for the Man Booker prize and Marilynne Robinson’s wasn’t!
    Now I want to see a similar hatchet job on Lauren Groff’s ‘Fates and Furies’ a book with another load of unbelievable characters who were all unbelievably successful.
    Obviously, I should have gone to an Ivy League college and then I would have been unbelievably successful and not have so much time to spare to read over-long, over-hyped crap books.
    Thanks again, Thomas, you restore my sanity.


    • Thomas October 25, 2015 / 7:16 am

      And the notion that a kid who spent what appeared to be all but one year of his life–the year where Ana and his community college teacher identified his brilliance and got him prepped to go to that Ivy League school and get a full ride is also preposterous.


  10. lakesidemusing October 25, 2015 / 12:56 pm

    The initial reviews seemed promising and I considered reading the book despite knowing it would put me through an emotional wringer. At this point, I’ve firmly decided against it. Loved your review!


  11. Julia October 25, 2015 / 2:41 pm

    Implausible to say the least. As I read every damn page for my book club, I kept thinking…really? To be abandoned, beaten senselessly, raped by men for years only to escape into the hands of a kidnapping rapist who happened to run him over with a car which disfigured and caused lifelong agony was more than I could take. But wait, this same fellow gets into Harvard, MIT and who knows what other Ivy League school without ever studying or knowing how to maneuver the world.
    Enough! I couldn’t wait for death, his in particular, to end this horror story.
    Ugh. I agree with you. And the funny thing was everyone in my book club loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. queenofthepark October 26, 2015 / 5:05 am

    Made it to around 100 pages and found it tedious and aspects such as Jude’s childhood sufferings verging on ludicrous, Out of the rubbish bin into a life of unrelieved brutality in a monastery? Spare me!
    But I did love your review Thomas, that was the highlight of the disappointing experience that reading just the first chapters of this novel was for me.


  13. Liz Dexter October 26, 2015 / 6:21 am

    Ah good, more grist for my not-reading-this-book mill!


  14. Chris October 26, 2015 / 10:42 am

    Thank you for your review. I, too, am baffled by the acclaim this book is getting. It seems like people are either very much for or very much against it. While I really enjoyed the first part of the book, things became more and more unbelievable and in the end was sorry I spent three weeks reading it when I could have been reading something more delightful. I also would like to note that in no way should Andy have continued as his doctor; he had a cutter as a patient, yet his feelings for Jude blinded his capacity to be objective in his job. He kept thinking, next time he will be better! In addition, while I loved Willem, he was a saint. You’re telling me he *never* got upset with him? I found that infuriating and implausible, because I was getting mad. I would really like you and Simon to discuss this, spoilers and all. I think it would be really interesting! :-)


  15. Jennifer October 26, 2015 / 4:23 pm

    Thank you, Thomas!!! My feelings exactly!! As you may recall, Simon tried to publicly shame me at Booktopia Petoskey because I didn’t like A Little Life so I’m very happy to see that I’m not alone.


    • Thomas October 29, 2015 / 8:52 pm

      I forgot about you not liking A.L.L. The rest of the room was practically fawning over it.


  16. Brona October 26, 2015 / 11:54 pm

    As I read this book I went through so many mixed emotions. There was a binge-read obsessive part for me even as I was aware of the flaws.
    I skimmed the last third as I’d had enough of the trauma. As you say, I was completely desensitised.
    But I thought it was interesting & yet kept wondering how on earth the Booker judges could have read this book five times.
    As time has gone by I’ve liked this book less and less. I felt manipulated. Mr Books started reading it and wasn’t enjoying it. I encouraged him to give up (something he never does) life’s too short to read a (long) book that you’re not enjoying.
    I think I kept hoping for something more by the end.
    All it’s left me with is a bitter after taste.

    Thank you for letting me vent!


  17. SACHA October 28, 2015 / 12:21 pm

    What a relief to finally read a review which accurately sums up how I felt about the book..I simply cannot believe or understand why it has garnered such rave reviews. Badly and over-written, poorly edited (if at all), not believable at all, repetitive, over long, badly researched… need I go on. And yet when I listened to Hanya Yanigahara being interviewed I could hardly believe that such an intelligent and sensitive person could have put together such drivel. I did finish it, sort of, though couldn’t resist skimming the last 50 pages or so, as by that time I had run out of sympathy or the ability to believe or care about any of the characters. It’s a shame, as this deals with important subjects that need and deserve to be dealt with in a more subtle and intelligent way – from listening to Hanya Yanigiahara I think she could have done it, but chose not to for some reason. I put the book down both baffled and irritated.


  18. Alice October 30, 2015 / 4:42 pm

    I feel better about not finishing it now, I thought I might be dead inside. I’m 200 pages or so in and I just can’t bare to pick it back up.


  19. BookerTalk October 31, 2015 / 2:09 pm

    I’ll agree with you re the quality of writing – many times it felt rather unfinished – and also with the lack of robust characterisation of the friends that surround Jude. But I enjoyed it rather more than you did. Not however as much as Simon…..


  20. Annabel Gaskell (@gaskella) November 3, 2015 / 6:24 am

    It so needed a good edit. I sort of enjoyed it – but only on the level of soap opera. Literary masterpiece it is not!


  21. nerdybookgirl November 8, 2015 / 8:39 pm

    Thank you for writing this review. I need to print out a few copies and just hand them out when folks ask why I haven’t read it. By the way, I spent the longest time thinking that is Morrissey on the cover thinking up some anguished lyrics.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Karen K. November 18, 2015 / 10:09 am

    Thanks for the insightful and thorough review — I’m definitely skipping it. And I’m impressed that you suffered through 720 pages so that others won’t have to.


  23. sarahcl June 20, 2016 / 5:20 pm

    So glad to find another negative review (especially one that noticed how ridiculous the whole monastery thing was)!

    This book has been driving me crazy for half a year, and reading all the contradictory, morally dubious claims Yanagihara has been making about her book makes the whole thing worse, not better.

    It is lurid, bloated, sadistic torture porn, and does not deserve any of the literary acclaim it has been given.



  24. Julia April 21, 2018 / 12:43 pm

    So so relieved to find I am not the only one who found this book so much less than the masterpiece so many people think it is. I finished it ( de peine et de misère) but felt really disappointed with the experience.
    In fact, in plain English, it was very very boring.


  25. Daniel August 25, 2018 / 4:54 am

    Sorry, but I loved it. The story, the characters, and most of all the writing. The words did it all for me. I read certain paragraphs and pages over and over again, savoring every syllable and every consonant and the meter of every phrase, long or short.

    But leaving all the good technical stuff aside, this book moved me. Was not at all unbelievable to me. I’ve seen it all. I could identify the characters with people in my life, past or present, and so many of the situations were relatable and actually not as harrowing as ones I have either dashed through or had friends languishing in during my life. And yet my life’s been happy. Go figure. Maybe because I’m 70 I’ve lived more and seen more than you all. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. All is required viewing.

    But whatever, just know that one person on the planet is not at all surprised at all the five-star reviews this jarring but beautifully written trip through some difficult lives. Brava, I say.

    Gimme another.


    • Thomas August 26, 2018 / 11:25 pm

      You are actually in the majority. As noted, it was a huge hit.


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