16126596Reviewed by Holly Madison

To properly review The People in the Trees, I’m going to break it down into distinct elements which all deserve their own unique rating.

– The cover: 5 out of 5 stars. It’s simple, beautifully made, and is perfect for what this book SHOULD be.

– The concept: 5 out of 5 stars. The idea of this book is unique, beautiful, and enchanting. Unfortunately it is not fully realized in the execution of the story.

– The outside story: 5 out of 5 stars. This is the part of the story that involves things separate from the main character — his surroundings, such as the island history, the scenery, and the other characters.

– The writing style of the author: 5 out of 5 stars

– The inside story: 1 out of 5 stars. This is the part of the book that we see more than anything else – the personal thoughts, narration, and feelings of the main character.

I was initially attracted to this book because of the stunning cover coupled with the description on the back of the book. It sounded so unique, so incredible. I expected to find an adventure inside about science, foreign countries, and immortal life. I am sad to say that I was deeply disappointed, and found myself coming out of this book feeling rather depressed. This book is macabre and disturbing, and even as an incredibly open-minded person, I cannot give this book the rating that I wanted to give it. Overall, this book gets 3 stars simply because the beautiful elements in it counter-act (to some degree) the ugly personality of the main character, A. Norton Perina.

I feel like this book could have been something amazing. Had it been written about the outside story and excluded Perina completely (or perhaps featured a fictional, more likeable character), this would have been a 5 star book. In fact, the history of the island which goes into detail about the ancient gods and the turtle–it’s nothing short of enchanting. That alone would have made an incredible story that I would long to revisit again and again. But Hanya Yanagihara managed to take an enchanting story and taint it with something ugly–the point of view from a cruel man who not only is sociopathic, but is also a child rapist. Surprised? I know I certainly was.

Don’t get me wrong – Yanagihara has a unique and often immaculate writing style that deserve to be recognized. There is a huge amount of potential – obvious throughout the book from the flawless way she describes the island, the execution of the footnotes, and her overall choice in words which leaves nothing to be desired. I just wish she had taken her incredible talent and chosen to write a story that was, well…. happier. Prettier. Or, if that is out of the question, then darker. So dark that it can’t possibly be mistaken for an adventure story.

Here’s my issues with this book:

The main character is a cruel man and is highly unlikable. He is a brilliant scientist, but seems to have no conscience at all. I was unable to relate to him at all even though I was a science major in college.

The first part of the book was by far the worst part for me, as I am incredibly sensitive about animal cruelty. From Norton’s point of view, we see inside of an uncaring mind – a boy who enjoyed confusing and making fun of his ill mother and a child who liked to torture frogs and other small animals. As an adult, his nature really comes to light as he goes into detail (too much detail) about how he enjoys killing the mice in his lab. Animals there are treated like nothing more than inanimate objects, and I fell apart when I had to read about the dogs being tortured and operated on, then thrown out like garbage once they died. I found myself in tears more often than I would have liked, and several times I threatened to put the book down and never open it again. Yet curiosity prevailed.

I feel like this book should have been taken in one of two directions – the first option would be to give it a moral, a light at the end of the tunnel. Some sort of happy ending that makes it worth reading. The other direction would be to go to a darker place and make this a full-blown horror novel. I think she could have gotten away with that quite easily as I was already horrified by what I was reading. Instead we are left with something in between, and it just doesn’t work.

There is nothing at the end of this book that makes me feel uplifted – nothing that makes this a book I would ever recommend to another person. Most importantly, I define a book’s greatness by whether or not I will go back to re-read it again and again, as I have done with many books over the years (some to the point where they begin to fall apart!). I will never re-read this book again–at least not the whole thing. I do see myself opening it back up to re-visit some of the more enchanting elements, particularly the story about the history of U’ivu and its mythology. That being said, this is a book that is apparently based on a true story, but the elements of the book – the island’s name, even the name of the animals and fruits on the island – have all been changed. From a scientific perspective, it would have been nice to learn more about the real species that influenced this story. Putting a new name on the faces and species in the book doesn’t necessarily help it – it hurts it. And if details like this are going to be changed, why not go a little bit further and give us even a glimpse of a happy ending?

Final notes:

I cannot help but wonder why the author, who has an obvious talent for writing in a literary sense, would write such a depressing story.

Was she trying to rebel by giving the book an unlikable character, or maybe she was trying to teach readers that science is evil? Either way, human beings destroying a species for their own gain isn’t about science being evil- it’s about humanity being evil. Maybe the craziness inflicted upon the people who ate the turtle meat is nature’s way of getting back at us for destroying it? Yet without a glimmer of hope that message wasted. There was no happy ending, no redeeming quality. No moral to be learned.

I will not be reading this book again.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

Holly has a Bachelors degree in Environmental Science and owns a small business with her husband selling fleece and hand-spun yarn. When she is not spinning yarn, she does freelance work as a graphic design artist and is highly involved in animal rescue.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Random House. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.