Contemporary Literature

A Little Life

I don’t know if this title was supposed to mean “here is a story about a little bit of life” or “here is the story of one small life” but honestly it doesn’t matter. Because either way, this is a story of a life that is nothing short of a masterpiece. This has been on my to read list for a while, but at over 700 pages, it’s a tad intimidating. At this point though, having just finished, my only regret is that I didn’t read it sooner. I haven’t been more touched, and emotionally devastated, since I read All the Ugly and Wonderful Things (which is one of my favorites books of all time). I would just like to shout out to my long-distance book club for being brave enough to vote on a book this long, because it was exactly the push I needed to start it. And it was absolutely everything it’s built up to be. So very worth the time investment.

(Personal confession: I had no idea that the author was a woman. In fact, although there is no reason for this other than the weird connections that sometimes form in one’s subconscious, I totally pictured the person on the cover as a self-portrait shot of the author. Like I said, it makes no sense, but there is is. As a small follow up to this confession, I love that a woman chose not only to write about/from the perspective of men, but only men, and with such strong male-male relationships. And she nailed it – in my opinion, even though I’m not a man myself. Take that male authors writing from women’s perspectives – this is what it feels like!)

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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This is the story of four friends who meet in a small college in Massachusetts. Directly from the blurb on the side cover, we have: “…kind and handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry into the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude…” We see their relationships change and grow as they do so themselves, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. But, eventually, everything in this story revolves around Jude, who becomes a high-powered lawyer but cannot leave behind the scars (physical and emotional) that haunt him from his horrifyingly traumatic childhood. As the decades pass and these four move through life, we see how they come together and fall apart in one of the most affecting and compelling depictions of friendship, brotherly love (and other love: familial, parental, romantic, sexual, manipulated, self), and the power of our pasts that I’ve ever read.

I’m really struggling with how to write this review, because I don’t think I have the words, or the skill to wield the ones I do have, to appropriately describe (read: laud) the agony that is this novel. Yanagihara is a genius. Her language, pacing, character development, plot advancement (including when to reveal and when to hold back), and just overall ability to create an atmosphere are nigh on unparalleled. To be able to tell a story of life like this, in such a compelling and absorbing way, but to still have it be, truly just a story of everyday life (albeit at least partially greater/beyond the ordinary) is unbelievable. Immediately after I started, and continuing throughout the whole story, I was completely invested, living and experiencing alongside the characters, losing myself in their stories, and pretty much unable to put down or disconnect from the book. Everything was just so real that I times I forgot that these were fictional characters and stories. I seriously loved (and sometimes love-hated) every second reading this. My emotional responses ran the gamut, from being deliriously happy to on the edge of my seat with apprehension to dramatic (and ugly) tears of pain and sorrow. There is so much hopefulness and hopelessness all tied up together here in such a nuanced, tangled way – the heartbreaking and full-heartedness of life (both in the daily, small details juxtaposed with the overarching, lifelong elements) all come together in a haunting and unforgettably authentic way here. Although it was at times so hard to read, there was never even a question that I would push forward, hoping for the best (which essentially beautifully mirrors the perseverance we see from our protagonists, and particularly Jude, all along). Poignant and amazing.

So many times I read passages (I’ve included some below), that just made me stop for a second and think and appreciate how well the author captured certain feelings and ideas. There are so many universally recognizable concepts that she puts into words in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible. From the lighter side, like comfortable and natural connection and companionship (with the ability to understand without the need for words), to the darker side, like the anger and lashing out at those you love most when you start to feel lost and overwhelmed (despite knowing that you’re being irrational), this novel covers it all. You cannot help but identify and empathize with these characters’ feelings of guilt, vulnerability (and the need to hide the ‘worst’ parts of yourself), closeness and acceptance, dependency (both good and bad), sorrow and bargaining, love and loathing (for both oneself and towards others), unconditional support, frustration and anger – it’s truly the most realistic depiction of all the best and darkest parts of the human psyche and experience in relationships. At every turn you recognize parts of yourself in these characters’ relationships and reactions, even though at times it’s incredibly hard to admit.

I could keep going, but I think you all get the idea. And if not, the fault lies with me; my words were not enough to convey the depth and power of this story. The truth, the humanity the author creates and presents to us, the readers, through this novel is absolutely a tour de force. I cannot recommend it enough.


Some beautiful passages/insights:

“…it was a relief to simply be with another person to whom you didn’t have to explain anything…”

“He experienced the singular pleasure of watching people he loved fall in love with other people he loved.”

“…this whole incident is a metaphor for life in general: things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”

“It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified. Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.”

“We all say we want our kids to be happy, only happy, and healthy, but we don’t want that. We want them to be like we are, or better than we are. We as humans are very unimaginative in that sense. We aren’t equipped for the possibility that they might be worse.”

“…it is always easier to believe what you already think than to try to change your mind.”

“Wasn’t it a miracle to have survived the unsurvivable? Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire world seem somehow less lonely? And so who could blame him for hoping for one more, that despite biology, and time, and history, that they would be the exception…that even with all that Jude had overcome, he might overcome just one more thing?”

“It was precisely these scenes he missed the most from his own life with [ ], the forgettable, in-between moments in which nothing seemed to be happening but whose absence was singularly unfillable.”

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