A Little Life (Yanagihara)

The cover photo is perfect. The anguish matches the main character – Jude – perfectly.


And the title is interesting to contemplate. We have such little lives. We leave so little behind. There is so little life in Jude.

The writing here is exquisite and precise. Yanagihara telescopes between the large and small moments with dexterity and grace. There is an excess of coyness here which is hard to discuss without spoiling anything, but I’ll try. Jude has secrets – secrets he’s very much unwilling to share. As readers, we know some very bad things have happened to him by allusions to all-too-familiar situations – his being under the care of monks at a monastery, for example. So for a while, I could understand Yanagihara’s approach – Jude didn’t want to talk about his past, so she wouldn’t either. And her decision to reveal things coincides with his decision to start trusting people again. That makes sense. There was an excess of unnecessary teasing about Jude’s past, though. It became irritating.

Jude is surrounded by people who create art, while he, a lawyer, moves from being a defense attorney to a litigator for big pharma, much to the chagrin of the man who adopts him late in life. That was a welcome choice. We suffer so much with and for Jude that I think it was wise for Yanagihara to avoid painting him as completely noble. Indeed, I wondered why the anger that surfaces later in the book does not arrive sooner. He has plenty to resent.

Too much? Probably. Though I don’t doubt that many people suffer a multitude of tragedies, there is probably one large one too many in this novel. We stepped into movie-of-the-week territory at that point.

Yanagihara has more than a few moments of thoughtful insights, particularly about friendships and love and the territory that lies in between. These sections and others are powerful to read and consider, but when I put the book down, I could never satisfactorily eliminate that Yanagihara had overreached. Her ability to render small (perhaps the “little” of the title) moments so well gets washed away in such a large book. I will read her next one, but only if it’s more tightly written. And, as a last parting shot, I’m not sure the world needs more novels about rich guys in New York. So much of the territory – theatres, galleries, etc. – felt quite familiar.


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