***WARNING. SOME SPOILERS AHEAD.***
Right off the bat, I’m going to say that this book should come with a trigger warning. We’re talking dark stuff. So if you have problems with the subjects of child molestation, sexual abuse, physical abuse, or self-harm, by all means stay away from this book.
To those still reading, I bet you’re intrigued.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is the first book I have read in a long time where I really can’t figure out how I feel about it. I guess I can only talk about my overall experience.
The photo on the cover was my first draw to this book. I’m no expert, but to future authors out there – never underestimate the power of a good cover. To me, it looked like a powerful image of agony – both physical and emotional pain. I didn’t know what the picture was until I was done reading the book and saw the title of the photograph, depicted in small font on the back sleeve under the author bio. The photo is called “Orgasmic Man” by Peter Hujar. Interesting, considering the book’s subject matter.
After reading this book’s description, located on the front inside sleeve, I wanted to read it, despite its over-700 pages. The description tells you that this is a book about four friends who move to New York City after college. One is an aspiring artist – another, an aspiring actor. A third is working towards becoming an architect. And the fourth, Jude, is the one that “ties them all together.” The description made it seem like this sad, but uplifting story of friendship – through all its challenges and all of life’s twists and turns.
Sad – yes. Friendship – yes. Uplifting? Debatable.
This book was not exactly what I thought it was going to be. Not good or bad, but in terms of its description – a bit disappointing. While I do believe it focused on this group of four friends, it really was about two of them most of the time. A third got a few spotlights. The fourth – the architect – had maybe one section that was actually all about him. But let’s be real, this novel is about Jude and the ramifications of his disturbing past as he tries to live his life in the present.
Here is what I liked about this book. I liked that it was mostly rooted to friendship. It could perhaps be considered romantic, and it was – however, the romantic relationship between Jude and Willem was completely faulty. It was the friendship between these characters that was most important. I respond best to truly moving depictions of friendships, rather than romantic relationships, in fiction. Maybe because I am not in a romantic relationship, and therefore, friendships are everything to me. Maybe because I’m not a very physically affectionate person, but like the idea that two people can be drawn together by common interest and mutual respect. Friendship, in a novel (when properly depicted) is the purest form of a relationship that can exist.
Hanya Yanagihara is a beautiful writer, there is no doubt about that. In this novel, she wrote my new favorite quote:
Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? 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 you could be dismal around him in return.” – A Little Life, page 225
This comes from the perspective of Willem, Jude’s best friend (those other two guys really aren’t that important). Willem’s friendship with Jude is everything to him. To Jude, their friendship is the best part about his life.
Unfortunately, it never saves him.
This book is frustrating. Basically bad stuff happened in the past, and then bad stuff continues to happen. Every time Jude is almost what normal people would consider happy, more bad stuff happens. All the while, Jude is becoming more and more messed up inside, I’m becoming more and more messed up inside, and Hanya Yanagihara is probably somewhere laughing sadistically at all the pain and suffering she has produced simply by putting words on paper. Here is a character that is so thoroughly damaged, surrounded by good people who just want to fix him but have no way of doing so. Even the person he loves and trusts the most in the world – Willem – can’t do anything. He never heals.
So I guess the title – A Little Life – can take on different meanings. For one, Brother Luke disgustingly tells Jude to show “a little life” when he is dealing with his clients when they are having sex with him, so maybe they’ll come back. But looking at the entire story, here is what I got: that even in a damaged life, a life full of pain and agony, there is just that – a little life. There is still room for friendship and trust, for family and a chance to feel good if only for a brief moment. Whether or not I am supposed to take comfort in this tiniest morsel of hope for Jude – again, I think that’s debatable. Because this novel did not make me feel hopeful. Rather, I thought I would never get through it.
I am torn between the fact that it was beautiful and elegantly written and the fact that it seemed never ending. I never want to read this book again, yet I can’t stop thinking about it.
Am I glad I read it? Sure. Is my overall outlook on life at all changed by the revelations that came with reading this book? No. Would I recommend it to a friend? Hard to say.
So. If you are planning on reading this book. I wish you good luck. And can I offer you a kleenex?
My overall rating: ★ ★ ★ —- I think…?
Up Next: The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht