A Little LifeA Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was convinced about a third of the way through that this book would be a five-star read and one of my all-time faves. But when an author writes an 800+ page saga, she had better be darned sure that the last 500 pages are just as engaging as the first 300. Sadly, that was not the case here.

Yanagihara's writing is admittedly strong (although there's an awful lot of "telling" going on), and the story--while depressing--is a compelling one. But it peaks somewhere around the end of the first third and then loses steam from there. The last 100 pages felt torturous, like a botched tooth extraction. I found myself losing patience and simply wanting this thing to end. I also felt resentful that this obviously talented author couldn't tell her story more efficiently. Truly, there is no fathomable reason why this book needs to be 814 pages, other than ego-based self-indulgence, which is a form of reader abuse.

One reason for the unnecessary heft is the many poorly-developed secondary characters (friends, their lovers who come and go, neighbors, mentors, co-workers, spouses of the above, etc.); I could not keep track of them all. There are also way too many meaningless and repetitive dinners and get-togethers. But that wasn't even my biggest problem with this story.

The "take away" is supposed to be that the protagonist, Jude St. Francis, suffered horrible, unspeakable (literally) abuse for the first 15 years of his life (parsed out stingily in various "information dumps" over the first 600 pages or so); and while Jude managed to go to college and become a successful attorney, his inability to speak about or process his horrific past in any meaningful way eats away at him (literally) for the next four decades. This is itself a valid, plausible, and interesting proposition. But the author doesn't stop there.

Jude St. Francis starts out as a government lawyer at the U.S. attorney's office. Somewhat early on, however, he quits that job to work for a corporate law firm, a veritable sweatshop where he works six or seven days a week, often until midnight or all night. Meanwhile, despite being physically unavailable 20 out of 24 hours each day, and despite remaining on a personal level a closed, damaged, and at times abrasive human being with a vice grip commitment to preventing any true form of intimacy, Jude somehow magically draws to him a cadre of loving, loyal lifelong friends, a "pro-bono" on-call physician, and a partner like Willem (who is a world-renowned actor, no less). Okaaaaay . . . . .

I accept that there are many instances in this book--indeed, fiction in general, when we are asked to suspend disbelief (e.g., the similar meteoric career rise of Jude's three friends), and I am usually happy to do so. But the notion that such a psychologically damaged, socially meek, and physically weak and vulnerable character as Jude would be able to sustain--much less thrive under--the crushing, non-stop demands of a high-profile law firm is beyond preposterous to me. As an attorney familiar with such places, I can tell you Jude would not have lasted a year. His relentless work schedule exhausted me, even as the author conveniently glossed over how socially and physically draining these demands would be to the hardiest among us. I'm sorry, the author cannot, on the one hand, spend 800+ pages hammering home the myriad ways in which Jude's ghosts preclude him from living a full life--from loving freely, from having sex, from not mutilating himself, from functioning--and on the other expect readers to believe that he sheds those disabilities like Clark Kent and turns into Superlawyer when he walks through the doors of Rosen Pritchard (or whatever it's called). And then, when he deigns to come home to shower or keep a social engagement, this stubborn, self-destructive, and uncompromising individual magically draws to him and sustains a cadre of loving, loyal friends and a partner like Willem.

Jude is a person who, in real life, would live a lonely and isolated life--not due to his physical limitations so much as his emotional ones. In this story, he leads a charmed and socially-embraced one despite his own best efforts to ruin every good thing (other than Rosen Pritchard) that comes his way. But even that "stretch", in and of itself, would not have made me dislike this book. In the end, the stretching of this tale over a tiresome 814 pages is what ultimately did the trick.

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