First, I’ve read only a small handful of reviews, and can see that the reaction—while amazingly positive overall—was polarized. I’ve read both the ones that proclaim it an instant classic and the ones that hate it for its subject matter. I don’t really fall into either camp. I actually wanted to like this one, and for the first 200-250 pages, I thought it was going to be one of my favorites of the year. And I don’t intend to spend any time talking about the story. Very simply, it’s the story of four friends from a Boston college who reconnect as their careers take off in New York. Most of the story revolves around Jude, who has had a brutal childhood.
The novel is relentless, and not in a good way. Most of the people who have panned the book did so because they have qualms with Yanagihara’s portrayal of the kinds of abuse Jude suffers in his youth (which are laid out for us in slow and partial reveals throughout the novel) and the reactions of the other people in his life as they learn his story.
My problem with the book is purely technical, though, not thematic. I think the topic is a brilliant one and I actually enjoyed learning about the four characters — to a point. But the writing itself ruined it for me. I think I need to bullet-point my problems with the book, though:
- I can’t believe she worked as an editor while she wrote this because it cries out for a ruthless editing job. There’s no way this story justifies 375,000 words. (The average for a literary novel is 80,000.) Every beginning fiction writer is beaten over the head with the axiom “show, don’t tell.” But this novel is 200 pages of showing and 600 pages of telling. If Willem (or any other character) has any thought about Jude, it doesn’t go on for a paragraph; it goes on for four or five pages, and you’re certain to hear about it again … and again.
- And that brings me to another problem: it’s so repetitive. Sometimes novels retell certain scenes from different characters’ perspectives to show how we process events differently. That’s not, however, what’s going on here. We get the same perspective, the same event, the same thought, as if it were on a loop. The actual scenes where the story line advances go by extremely quickly, perhaps even too quickly, and then we go right back into another 60-page chapter telling us how to feel about them.
- So many chapters begin with no reference to the shift among characters’s stories. We just get the unspecific pronoun “him” for a page or two. Why? Why make us play guessing games? It’s not setting up or solving any mystery. It’s just coy, annoying, and unclear writing.
- This last one may say more about me than it does about the book, but I found it infuriating and ubiquitous. I’m not a card-carrying member of the grammar police, and I realize this doesn’t violate a grammar rule technically, but when you split infinitives hundreds of times (virtually every other page, no exaggeration), especially when nothing is gained by doing so, it ceases to be a stylistic choice and becomes a verbal tic, and I found it increasingly distracting. I caught myself counting them they happened so frequently. Is that really where you want the reader’s attention to focus?
So judge me all you want; tar and feather me as a critic … whatever. But for me, it’s not an instant classic. There’s an amazing story to be told that could be a classic. But as it is, it’s a self-indulgent draft that a good editor needs to cut by 60%. As much as I want to love the story, I dislike the actual novel.
I have no doubt her next novel will be met with rapturous praise. But if it’s longer than 300 pages, I won’t read it. She’s already had thirty hours of my life.