2015 Chunkster Recommended books

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life Source: Personal Copy

Five words from the blurb: college, friendship, decades, New York, trauma

A Little Life is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. The evolving relationship between four college friends over several decades sounds like nothing special, but Yanagihara manages to get under their skin in a way few writers can. I was totally engrossed in their story, unable to stop thinking about them – even long after I’d turned the final page.

A Little Life deals with many difficult subjects – including paedophilia, physical abuse and suicide. Some people will find it too disturbing to read the more graphic scenes, but I thought it was important they were included. The way these events rippled through the lives of everyone, no matter how indirectly they were involved, was skilfully shown and I especially liked the way mental health and the pursuit of happiness was explored:

But these were days of self-fulfilment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble. Somewhere, surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.

The length of the book (700+ pages) will be daunting for some, but I loved the detail of this novel. It meant I could picture every aspect of their lives; imagine myself visiting their houses and be able to predict how they’d react to different scenarios. It’s rare to discover a book where a cast of characters are developed to this extent; to witness the strength of friendship and to investigate how it responds to the strains of life.

I have to admit that I wasn’t enthralled by the first 200 pages. The quality of the writing was outstanding, but I disliked the way the book switched between each of the men – it threw me out of the story and I felt as though I was having to start a new book on beginning each chapter. Luckily, about a quarter of the way through the book, everything came together and I remained hooked for the rest of the novel.

I loved Yanagihara’s debut, The People in the Trees, but A Little Life is even better. It has a much simpler plot, but the characters have more depth. It’s still well worth reading both books, but it is wonderful to see a writer develop and create something with the potential to become a classic.

A Little Life is an outstanding novel. It will probably make you cry but, worst of all, it will make all the other books you try for months afterwards feel insignificant.


22 replies on “A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara”

I’m glad you loved it, but it didn’t do quite the same for me. I didn’t not like it, but neither did it overwhelm me. It was a literary soap opera, unputdownable though because you can’t bear not to see what misery she will come up with next. I felt it needed really good editing (I understand she ignored a lot of her editor’s suggestions).

Annabel, I think you’re the first person I’ve found who’s been on the fence with this one – everyone else really loves or hates it!

I’m not sure about editing it as I loved it just the way it was, but I would be interested to see what the editor suggested removing. At least it is creating good discussions – that is all you can ask for in a book 🙂

I was on the fence with The Goldfinch too – ha ha! I really enjoyed reading along with Scott and co, and of course that discussion which took place as we read the book may have influenced me a little. I was in the minority that didn’t hate it there.

A Little Life is definitely one of my favourites of the year and of my life if I’m honest and differently to you it was the very beginning which had me completely enthralled and towards the end/some bits in the middle I felt I wanted more – not enough to put me off though as I’m firmly in the love camp.

I published my review of this book today, too! But please don’t read my review. I had just about the opposite reaction to the book, almost point by point. I wasn’t very nice about it either… 🙁

It will be interesting to see what makes the short list tomorrow.

Glad u were moved by this amazing book as well. As I just mentioned in another post, the author certainly achieved her goal of — wanting everything — the horror, the love, the distress, the compassion, the fortune, the misfortune — to feel heightened, to be pushed beyond what’s expected or even what’s wise; I wanted it to live at the far ends of the spectrums of human behaviour and emotions.

I’m really looking forward to reading this! I don’t generally go for such long novels by authors I’ve never read before, but I’m quite intrigued by everything I’ve heard about this book. Right now I’ve got a lot of reading on my plate, but I think I’m going to tackle this later in the fall or winter.

This was such an odd book for me, as I think it was for many others. A book that I was totally engrossed by, that was by turns devastating in its portrayal of abuse and almost (only almost – I’m a cold fish) made me well up in its moments of triumph. In that way it was a novel to set alongside such favourites as Rohinton Mistry’s ‘A Fine Balance’ and Ahdaf Soueif’s ‘In the Eye of the Sun’. But unlike with those two novels I was constantly aware whilst reading ‘A Little Life’ of exactly how I was being manipulated into feeling these things by the author.

And whilst I was lapping it all up, living and breathing alongside these characters, I was also constantly shaking my head at the preposterousness of it all: the characters who were all either saintly or evil with nothing in between (JB’s one lapse is put down to him being on drugs); the high-flying careers where they all meet up for birthdays and new years in cities all over the globe; the fact much of the novel clearly happens in the future whilst having the trappings of the present day throughout; the major turning point scene (trying to avoid spoilers) late in the book, that you have seen done in a dozen movies and tv shows; the fact Jude apparently functions on no sleep; the way the author loses interest in Malcolm as a character halfway through; the unbelievable relationship between Jude and Willem (they’re great as a bromance, but as a romantic pairing it doesn’t work, Jude becoming somehow infantile); the final abuse flashback which is both rushed after all the build-up and laughable because it’s one step too far and feels like trashy soap operatics or a “based on a true story” tv movie; the same list of characters who turn up to every event despite the fact many of them do or say nothing and I couldn’t remember who Phaedra and Elijah were supposed to be; the obsessive describing of interior decoration… in fact I agree with almost all of James’s review above.

And yet it was an unforgettable reading experience, one that was in some ways profoundly affecting. A month after reading it I still don’t know what to make of it – is it a page-turning mass market bit of fiction disguising itself as “literature”, a guilty pleasure? Or is it an unashamed throwback to a time when novels could be overwrought and melodramatic and yet still be considered great? I don’t know if this will win the Booker (I’d guess not), but I could see it winning the Pulitzer – it just seems like that kind of book that you can see still being read and loved in another forty or fifty years, despite its many flaws.

David, Your comments on the last post made me think you didn’t really enjoy this book, but it sounds as though it’s growing on you over time. I agree that it has flaws, but how can an “unforgettable reading experience” be anything but great? I agree that it will become a classic and be enjoyed for many years to come – mainly because anyone who has read it will be unable to forget it and so continue recommending it over the decades.

The timelessness of the setting has been criticised in lots of reviews, but I think this adds to the novel and will help it to survive the test of time. I like the fact that Jude’s story could be beginning now or 50 years ago. I also think it’s strange everyone comments on how saintly the characters are. They are all deeply flawed. They aren’t perfect people and I’m sure you’d find a lot of complaints if, for example, you interviewed Jude’s work colleagues.

I love the fact you compare it to A Fine Balance’ – my all time favourite book. I think it is an appropriate comparison, but I can also see that Mistry’s book is superior in many ways. I haven’t read Ahdaf Soueif’s ‘In the Eye of the Sun’, but your comparison has added straight to my wishlist. Expect to see a review sometime soon!

You see this is why I say I found it odd – I had two completely different reactions to it at the same time. I’ve read books where I’ve vacillated between loving and hating them (AS Byatt’s ‘The Children’s Book’ was one of those – one chapter would bore me senseless, the next would be just beautiful), but never one where I feel I could equally write a glowing review and a scathing one and feel as committed to both arguments.

On the “timelessness” thing: I think you are right in theory and she has clearly done it on purpose, but she ruins it in a scene where JB is in the studio he shares with Richard and the other two artists. One of them (I forget his name) is making dioramas about Asian American history with one for each decade, and he has made one for the 2000s. This immediately places me in a timeframe (the current decade) where before I wasn’t sure, and from that point on a little calendar is turning over in my head, so that by the end of the book we’re in the 2040s yet all the trappings are those of today. It was a minor niggle, but given that scene also acknowledges pivotal cultural moments in recent history, I think the book would have been richer if it had engaged with them instead of existing in this fable-like world. It wouldn’t have dated the book, just placed it in a context – the way she has chosen to present it I think will actually date it more.

Jude is the obvious exception to the rule regarding the saintliness of the characters as clearly he is flawed (though there is something a bit martyr-like about him). But Willem, Andy, Harold, Richard? They are far too perfect. JB’s mockery of Jude (and subsequent mortification) was about the only moment that rang true and it irritated me no end that Yanagihara couldn’t just allow that to be one of those terrible things that people sometimes do even to those they love, it had to be because he was on heroin.

I think I liked the book most unreservedly before Caleb (which affair was horrific but also voyeuristic because you knew from the minute you met him what was going to happen – it was too obvious) and before Jude and Willem get together (a relationship I never believed in). I loved that story of the four of them making their way through college and starting out in New York, and how the book hopped between the characters. I had more problems with the latter half of the novel, even though by that time I was so invested in these characters that I couldn’t put it down.

I’m so glad this one didn’t disappoint you, Jackie! It was the first book I read this year and literally every book I have read since has paled in comparison… But I know that some people have really not responded to it at all, and while I do understand their issues with the book, and would agree that it’s not perfect, I was just so captivated and swept up by the lives Yanagihara created (as well as by her gorgeous writing), that I forgive it whatever flaws it might have. I know you loved her last book and I had told you this one might possibly be better than it (and it was eerily similar yet also really different so I had a hard time comparing them), so I hoped I hadn’t built up your expectations too much. I’m glad you enjoyed this one so much (which seems weird to say about it, given the subject matter, but you know what I mean…).

Steph, Thank you for introducing me to this author! I love the fact you persuaded me to read ‘People in the Trees’ and I’m so pleased her follow-up didn’t disappoint either. I agree that a comparison between the two is very strange, but both books make me worry about what has happened in the author’s past. 🙁

Hopefully we’ll be able to find another book that matches this one before the end of the year, but somehow I doubt it.

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