A Little Life is painful, beautiful, and long. It’s the satisfying, engrossing kind of long, the kind where your mind tricks you into believing these people are real, that their lives are really happening, that you can really see their thoughts and their apartments and their laughter and their failure. This phenomenon is my favorite thing about books. And while A Little Life is first and foremost realistic, realistic in a way that brings to mind twisting unhappily in a too-hot bed, stuck in a nightmare…it is also, sometimes, exquisitely happy; exquisitely observant of the things that will remind the reader why life is worth living. Why it is beautiful, even.
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
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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cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity.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.
FRIENDSHIP AND HAPPINESS
The only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not kinder, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.
More than anything, I am sure that this novel will land differently for each person who picks it up. Especially the first half, when we follow four college friends—really follow them, Yanagihara style. She worms into their minds and tugs out golden threads that rang so true to me I pulled out my highlighter. I’m young, so the beginning, striving section of the book resonated most with me.
Yanagihara wrote things about relationships in this novel I didn’t know I felt until I read them. While all relationships can have ugly contours, the happiness given by the worthwhile ones feels impossible to capture. And yet here it is. A Little Life is not all sadness, or all pain. Its main character’s life is mostly those two things, but…but…the aggressively mundane happinesses stood out so much, delighted me so much, that the novel doesn’t actually feel lopsided. I found myself reflecting more appreciatively on the things that make me happy, content, calm, grateful.
It was like any relationship, he felt—it took constant pruning, and dedication, and vigilance, and if neither party wanted to make the effort, why wouldn’t it wither?
While it would be a lie to say that A Little Life is categorically about any one thing, a lot of it is about friendship (or some kind of deeper relationship we don’t have words for).
What makes a good friend? How much failure is forgivable—or is it always forgivable?
What does unconditional love actually look like when confronted with trauma, modernity, selfishness, normality?
Friendships are emotional, volatile, and in my opinion, more central to our lives than society would lead you to believe. Yanagihara’s characters do not move over to make space for one another within themselves; when something is confessed, the other person’s feelings rear their heads proportionally and accordingly, for example.
But loving relationships, beautiful friendships—and there are ugly ones in this novel as well—beautiful friendships are a privilege to read. Especially when the book is long, and you can grow to love the characters as well, and you get to know them so well that you know exactly how another character feels even when you’re not in their head.
I don’t know if the central relationship is best categorized as a friendship—probably not—but most of the beauty still applies. The love in this novel made me want to cry as much as the pain. There is also a beautiful parental relationship that many will find gratifying—I did—both from the parent and the child’s perspective.
DISABILITY, PAIN, AND TRAUMA
As with the book in general, Jude’s narrative will snag everyone a little differently. For some, it will be his trauma, and how he deals (or doesn’t deal) with it. These sections were so hard to read that I often sped through them.
The story of Jude’s trauma is the driving conflict of the entire novel—the thing Jude, and by extension all of his friends—is constantly fighting against.
I have seen reviews accusing Jude’s friendships of being unfair to his friends, who undoubtedly suffer as a result of this trauma and the ways it affects Jude mentally. I disagree; Yanagihara is painfully spectacular at writing Jude’s mind in a way that makes the reader empathize with all parties involved.
“I think every person who becomes disabled thinks they were robbed of something. But I suppose I’ve always felt that—that if I acknowledge that I am disabled, then I’ll have conceded…and so I pretend I’m not; I pretend I am who I was before…and I know it’s not logical or practical. But mostly, I’m sorry because—because I know it’s selfish. I know my pretending has consequences for you. So—I’m going to stop.” He takes a breath, closes and opens his eyes. “I’m disabled,” he says. “I’m handicapped.” And as foolish as it is—he is forty-seven, after all; he has had thirty-two years to admit this to himself—he feels himself about to cry.
Yanagihara’s sections on Jude dealing with disability deserve praise. Specifically, her choices of what to show; how much to show. What: all of the doctor’s appointments, medical treatments, infections and concerns that never, ever stop throughout the book. How much: the amount it actually affects Jude. Pain—chronic pain—is hard to describe, simply because it such an extreme, unique, malignant emotion. Its ugliness is different from the ugliness of Jude’s trauma. Yanagihara pulls the reader into a mental game with Jude as he lives with all these constants. He wins—or neutralizes, perhaps—the game more than I suspect many reviewers would admit.
But Yanagihara does not seem to write anything halfheartedly. She is realistic and true to her characters above all else, even if she uses nimble, skilled, poignant prose. I take issue with some of the novel’s most major plot points—I find them gratuitous and disingenuous—but usually not with the characters themselves.
A Little Life is a tragedy.
He was always astonished by, and appreciative of, how heroically his body met its every demand. He had been given a new awareness of it, and now, as he stretched his arms behind him as he leaped, he could feel how every sore muscle came alive for him, how it allowed him to do whatever he wanted, how nothing within him ever broke, how it indulged him every time.
I don’t know why Yanagihara narrows the scope of A Little Life as the book continues until it is almost all Jude. In fact, this is perhaps my only personal gripe with the novel: while I understand that Jude is the main character, while I have immense respect for the achievement of writing him, I missed the other characters.
ART AND BEAUTY
Somewhere within them ran a thin stream of quick, cool water, teeming with delicate lives, minnows and grasses and tiny white flowers, all tender and easily wounded and so vulnerable you couldn’t see them without aching for them.
A shallower part of me, as I read this book, lusted for the New York art scene. True to form, Yanagihara does not let the heavy role art (and ambition in art) go unexamined. The novel’s respect and interest in artists—not art, really, but artists—resonated deeply. She asks: Is beauty still only for the privileged? What recognition can we give moments of beauty that will never be painted, or even known, to anyone but ourselves?
He knew it was romantic, but he admired them: he admired anyone who could live for year after year on only their fast-burning hopes, even as they grew older and more obscure with every day. And, just as romantically…he considered [his friends] such successes, and he was proud of them…they had no clear path to follow, and yet they had plowed stubbornly ahead. They spent their days making beautiful things.
These sections about hope and beautiful things (which I grant were brief and stood out to me because of my own preferences rather than Yanagihara’s spending a particularly long time on them) were, I am slightly embarrassed to admit, inspiring. Let this be your message to go and make something beautiful, because making beautiful things is courageous, and Jude admires you for it.