A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.
This was one of those books that I just kept hearing about. Tons of bloggers that I follow were reading it and obsessing over it. It was in my face at the book store. It was long listed (then shortlisted) for the Man Booker Prize.
So, eventually I bought it. It was a pretty expensive/ginormous hardcover. But I bought it anyway. I didn’t want to wait for it at my library.
When I got it, I started reading it right away. And… I was pretty much hooked immediately. For the most part, the writing is fluid and honest—beautiful without being particularly ornate. The characters are fully fleshed out and three dimensional. I loved reading about their lives (although when it wasn’t about Jude, I was wishing for it to be about Jude. Even though most everything did, in some way, tie back to him).
After a while, though, I did find reading from JB and Malcolm’s perspectives a bit tedious. Their narratives were not really necessary or ever developed more than what happens in the first couple hundred pages.
That being said, Willem and Jude are amazing characters and I loved reading about them, and through them.
While I seemed to fly through the first 600 pages or so, I ended up feeling like the last 100/150 pages were unnecessary and kind of a chore to get through. There was a certain event around that point that just didn’t do it for me. It felt like too much, and like it was pure and simple manipulation of the reader’s emotions—and it didn’t really serve any purpose. It pulled me out of the story. It made me stop and think about the author’s choice here. And then I was thinking about the author and how this was someone’s creation and not a thing on its own. It just totally took me out of the story and made the last 100 pages hard to get through.
On reflection, there are more than a few things that I find improbable, but I really didn’t care when I was reading it. The thoughts crossed my mind, but they weren’t solid enough to draw my attention away (except the things near the end).
This book also reminded me of the naturalists—ex. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Where it feels like there is a set outcome that is inevitable, and there is nothing you can do about it, and it’s kind of hopeless. That’s the kind of feel A Little Life had for me at times.
And while A Little Life, and Tess, are beautifully explored tales, there is something in them that leaves me wanting. I’m a Christian, and an optimist. There’s just something about the bleakness that unsettles me. But, it does fill me with compassion. Yet… that naturalist philosophy just gets me. No matter what, there’s hope, people!
Overall, I did have a few problems with the book, but for the most part I loved it. I was drawn in immediately (and almost inexplicably, because really, nothing is actually happening), and punched in the gut. Multiple times. This book explores a lot of worthwhile topics in an honest, real, and often bleak way.
I recommend this book for readers of literary fiction, general fiction, and those who like an emotional read. If you live for a good character-driven read, definitely give this one a go.
Trigger Warnings: Sexual abuse, child abuse, self harm, and suicidal thoughts. Also some language.
Beth is the founder and editor of Fuelled by Fiction. She is a twenty-something east coast Canadian girl who loves writing about books and feminism.