7.03.2017

Book Review: A Little Life

As I've said before, it is hard to find time to write in the summer. The great outdoors and perfect Montana weather compete for my time and often win out over solitary time with my pen and my thoughts. With that in mind, I've set a challenge for today - write one book review during my lunch break from work. Here are my thoughts on Hanya Yanagihara's novel, A Little Life.
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I picked this book up at the Frankfort airport on my trip home from Italy. I chose it because it was long (720 pages) and long reads are essential for trans-continental plane rides. Additionally, it was on the Staff Picks shelf of the bookstore with a glowing review so it caught my eye.

Apparently, the book was an instant best seller, one of six finalists for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, and was one of the most talked about books of 2015. Somehow I missed it but I was glad I stumbled up it, albeit two years later. I always love the chance to read something that is wildly popular and see what the chatter is all about so I eagerly looked forward to reading this book.

The novel follows the lives of four young men from their days as college roommates to their lives in their 50s. The foursome moves to New York City, and each becomes extremely successful - as an actor, an attorney, an architect, and an artist. The authors does a great job developing these characters painting each of them with a strong character and a dynamic personality. As someone with a great curiosity about people and their stories, this kept me reading. The writing is fine, great it spots, but at times it seems like the author had to force the imagery and flowery language, and there are some moments of awkward prose. Not a deal breaker by any means but it made for some clumsy passages throughout the novel.

I have two main problems with the book. First off, A Little Life starts out being about four young men and their lives, but ends up shifting focus (About 300-400 pages in if I remember correctly) to being almost entirely about the character Jude, who has suffered a life of abuse yet goes on to be an extremely successful attorney with a large groups of loving friends. I was bothered by this because I really enjoyed the story of the four friends, and their lives both separately and as a group. By largely shutting three of the characters out I felt the story the book took an abrupt shift I was not expecting and I was left with a lot of curiosity about the other three characters.

The other problem I had with the book is that many of the situations in the book over the top - the four main characters and all of their friends are wildly successful, Jude's abuse is horrific and it doesn't stop when he escapes the horrors of his childhood, everyone is so diverse ethnically, racially, sexually, etc.

While I appreciate the diversity of characters, I think it was a bit contrived. It was almost as if the author was working off of a check list of underrepresented characters and was sure to include at least one of each. For instance, there are two characters named Henry Young, one Asian and one black. The four friends refer to them as Asian Henry Young and Black Henry Young. Neither does much to advance the story yet there they are making an appearance throughout and always referred to as Asian Henry Young and Black Henry Young.

While I enjoyed the novel and would suggest reading, I wouldn't put it on a list of favorites. While I commend the author for tackling the difficult topics of sexuality and abuse, the limitations I mention above prevent me from raving about it.