A heartbreaking examination of friendship, family, and the surprising roles that people can play in one’s life.


A sorrowful man recalls the evolution of an intimate friendship in this novel.

While attending university in Kyoto, Thornton’s (The Fable of the Wen, 2016, etc.) unnamed narrator occupies a corner room in the home of a “humorless and opinionated” woman and her family. The only other renter is a young student whose nearly imperceptible comings and goings make him a ghostly presence. The painfully shy narrator forgets to mind his stove one evening and awakens to find his fellow renter extinguishing the appliance and opening his windows to clear out the smoke. Intrigued by his neighbor’s startling beauty, and desiring companionship, the narrator strikes up a conversation. The pair bond over the narrator’s prized possession—an antique urn adorned with a serpentine dragon—and its lore. The narrator begins to crave the attention of the man whom he only addressed by the honorific “Sempai,” joining him for meals and concocting new ways to be involved in his life. Soon enough, they share “a private world, filled with a storybook directness.” The narrator finds himself jealous when they spend time apart and disappointed by Sempai’s seeming indifference to his presence. At times, the narrator feels the need to protect Sempai—a gentle, compassionate soul who even feels for the monsters in fairy tales. After returning from a summer trip to his hometown, the narrator finds Sempai even more introspective than before—a plight that the narrator tries to unravel. Thornton’s thoughtful novel acutely portrays the experience of an obsessive friendship, and the narrator’s earnest yearning for attention feels profoundly relatable. However, the text, while sophisticated and beautifully descriptive, occasionally verges on verbose. A few early passages, such as a description of the narrator’s creation of a haiku about using the bathroom, have a playfulness that doesn’t align with the text’s later gravitas. The slow pace of the plot and the narrator’s mournful self-reflections make for a heartfelt read, and it has a sorrow that’s almost tangible. Readers with a rudimentary understanding of Japanese culture will find it useful to understand some cultural references.

A heartbreaking examination of friendship, family, and the surprising roles that people can play in one’s life.

Pub Date: March 26, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5469-1343-6

Page Count: 130

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Dec. 19, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.


A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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