Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday, 2015)

I’ve been sitting on this review for a while, pondering how I feel about A Little Life. Turns out, the longer I wait, the less I feel as though I really liked this novel.

I heard several rave reviews of it before I started (including the cashier at Powells when I picked up a used copy in Portland) and so was happy to tackle the huge hardcover. And it wasn’t hard to get into. The characters are interesting and diverse and the book moves forward quickly and with a rate of revelation that makes you want to keep reading.

The novel’s description will tell you that it’s about four friends: Willem, Jude, JB, and Malcolm, and that it follows them from their early twenties, shortly after they’ve been roommates in university, and through the next forty or so years of life. That isn’t false but it’s really more the story of Jude and Willem. At some point, JB and Malcolm drop to secondary characters and while the book checks in on them occasionally, we don’t get much detail of their lives and we stop seeing anything from their perspective.

Even more so, the book is about Jude. It is Jude’s mysterious background and childhood that compel the reader to keep reading, as it is slowly revealed, and it is Jude’s development (or lack thereof) that we’re following. And while this is what kept me interested while I read, it’s also what makes me look back on the novel with a little less affection.

Jude arrives at university two years younger than his new roommates (who quickly become his first friends) and with his past shrouded with secrecy. He doesn’t talk about his home or family and others soon learn not to ask. At one point, it’s mentioned that they don’t even know Jude’s ethnicity, which I found slightly hard to believe and an unnecessary mystery.

Jude’s past is horrific. This is clear from early on and as the story progresses, more is steadily revealed until we learn the final, terrible event that left Jude physically disabled. There’s no one event in Jude’s life that is unbelievable – unfortunately, the world is full of terrible people and events and things like this do happen to children. It wasn’t even the sheer amount of horror that occurs to Jude in his life that felt unrealistic, it was that it is never balanced by a single moment of kindness. Everyone Jude meets from birth to about age sixteen is terrible and abusive. And then everyone after that (with one notable exception) loves and cares for and protects Jude. It seems that there is no middle ground with Jude; either people respect and care for him or they hate him and physically abuse him. This is a world without people who are ambivalent to or ignore others, it seems.

It’s a pity because Jude is an interesting character and the book uniquely looks at his life and the aftermath of his abusive childhood. The trauma of it follows and affects him for the rest of his life and it makes for a fascinating and heartbreaking portrayal of a person struggling to recover from something so terrible.

The friendship of Willem and Jude is central to the novel and we get a decent look at Willem’s background and his own childhood and how that has affected him. However, he remains a somewhat one-dimensional character, more a foil for Jude than someone who would be interesting to read about in his own right. Partway through the book, the relationship between Willem and Jude changes drastically and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I don’t want to reveal too much but it felt like an unnecessary alteration. The friendship that the two men have up until that point is powerful and unique and the change seems to be done more to create tension than anything else. It didn’t feel like a natural progression of their relationship.

While I’ve been rather negative here, I did enjoy A Little Life while I read it. It’s a big book but I finished it quickly because I wanted to keep reading it and to find out what happened to the characters. Yanagihara is clearly a skilled writer and I would be happy to read more of her work.

Book Review: The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway

The Garden of Eden – Ernest Hemingway (Scribners, 1986)

I’m a big fan of Ernest Hemingway (the writing more than the man himself but that’s a topic for another time) and I’ve read most of his writing. While in Washington recently, I spotted a Hemingway book I’d never read in a secondhand bookshop and so brought it home. It turns out that The Garden of Eden was published posthumously in 1986. I’m always wary of books published years after an author’s death. Would the author really have wanted this book made public? Is the story complete? Will it be as good as the rest of the author’s work? (The answer is often no.)

While The Garden of Eden is not Hemingway’s finest novel, it is a fascinating read and the style and setting will be very familiar to his readers. Set between France and Spain it follows David and Catherine Bourne on their honeymoon. Which is, in typical Hemingway style, a months-long holiday through Europe, spent fishing, swimming, and drinking a lot.

David and Catherine are utterly content when we first meet. They seem to have met and married in Paris after a short courtship. They’ve settled into a routine in a small town in the south of France where Catherine causes a small scandal by wearing shorts but they are otherwise accepted. David is a writer whose second novel has recently been published and he is beginning to receive very good reviews. Catherine encourages him to write but hates the sight of his news clippings and seems reluctant to discuss his book.

As the book – and the marriage – progress, Catherine begins to reveal to David her hidden desires. While Hemingway never goes into detail about these desires and the intimate moments between David and Catherine, it isn’t difficult to figure out what he’s alluding to. And, indeed, the book is more explicit than many others in its time and by Hemingway.

Then Catherine begins to involve another woman into their relationship and David and Catherine form attachments to her, both as a couple and individually. Predictably, this creates a lot of complications. David is writing more than ever but instead of writing the story Catherine wants him to, he’s begun to write a series of stories about his father in Africa. Hemingway’s descriptions of writing, his portrayal of David’s struggles and desires over his stories, feels terrifically accurate. Sometimes painfully so. The subtle comparison of David’s focus on his work and his growing focus on another woman, and Catherine’s reaction to both, is well done and fascinating to watch.

The book is sad, as most of Hemingway is, especially when it comes to marriage and romance. Catherine is much more fully developed than many of the women Hemingway wrote, though there are still many blank spots in her character. Some aspects of her past are alluded to but we’re told very little. In the end, I was left to feel that David was supposed to be a victim of her instability when, to my view, he was just as guilty for the destruction of their marriage. Yet, like Hemingway himself, it feels clear that David will never be satisfied in one relationship for long.

Blue Monday Happiness

Today is unofficially marked as “Blue Monday” – the so-called “most depressing day of the year”. There’s some pseudo-science calculation behind it that has to do with the weather/length between holidays/bills arriving after Christmas. If you’re in Australia right now, you’re probably fine.

We had a not very relaxing weekend, I’ve worked 11 of the last 12 days, and it’s so foggy outside I can’t see the ocean from my window today.

But….it hasn’t rained in a week…all those days of work mean extra money…and there is much in this world to rejoice over.

Here are a few happy moments captured in the past week:

A beautiful sunset last week. The sunsets lately have been amazing. I won’t inundate you with the photos I have but I’ve been out there almost every night because each one has been stunning.

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Hot coffee, homemade cinnamon knots, and green electrical tape on my laptop.

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$6 bought me seven books at the thrift store.

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The frozen surface of Trout Lake. (Important note: a thrown stone cracked the ice, so I would not recommend taking a walk across here.)

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A forewarning of fog at Trout Lake yesterday.

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Exploring.

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One more sunset picture, from last night.

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We live in a beautiful world. May you find things to be happy about on this Blue Monday.