A Little Life: Book Review

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara published in 2015.


“A Little Life follows four college classmates—broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition—as they move to New York in search of fame and fortune. While their relationships, which are tinged by addiction, success, and pride, deepen over the decades, the men are held together by their devotion to the brilliant, enigmatic Jude, a man scarred by an unspeakable childhood trauma. A hymn to brotherly bonds and a masterful depiction of love in the twenty-first century, Hanya Yanagihara’s stunning novel is about the families we are born into, and those that we make for ourselves.”

Trigger warning (1)

When I asked the store clerk at Lunenburg Bound Books in Nova Scotia for her recommendation, she told me that A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara would change my life. Consider my life changed.

Malcolm, JB, Willem, and Jude have known each other since freshman year of college, and this novel follows their friendship as they live in New York City. Despite their incredibly varying personalities, they find themselves sticking together through thick and thin. Malcolm is the son of a wealthy family and has a passion for architecture. JB is a shining example of a struggling artist, finding inspirations for his painting within his friendships. Willem is an aspiring actor, doing what most aspiring actor do in New York; working as a waiter. Finally there is Jude, a bashful lawyer who carries the legacy of an incredibly traumatic childhood. The story centres around Willem and Jude’s (mainly Jude) escalating relationship from their college years all the way to their fifties.

Let’s start this the way I usually do: talking about the characters. I fell in love with the majority of the characters, even beyond the main four. They were written to be very distinguishable and noteworthy, and even further the relationships that were formed between all of them were enviable, especially Willem and Jude’s. (Notice how I didn’t say perfect?) Yanagihara managed to flawless capture the comfortable, humdrum relationship that one can only achieve after decades of sacrifices and compassion.

The highs of this book are heart fluttering, and the lows of this book (and when I say lows, I mean depths of hell low) are heartbreaking, yet my favourite is how grounding the mediocrity. The author makes a point of at least mentioning the most mundane aspects of life and relationships, and yet she doesn’t spend precious word count boring the reader. Romance has never been my genre, and even in books that don’t fit in that category, like this one, I tend to gloss over any sort of romance within its pages. But Yanagihara manages to write about something stronger and less tangible than love. She’s grasped at a concept so far out of the box that there isn’t a word in the English language that I can think of to properly describe it. It’s something that’s experienced rather than explained.  

As I mentioned earlier, the lows in this book were devastating. Most of them revolve around Jude and his horrific childhood, as well as his coping (or rather lack of coping) he does as an adult. I found myself looking at Yanagihara as some sort of cruel God overlooking the world she’s created, and thought to myself, “My god, the poor man has suffered enough, have mercy.” Each new disturbing event that Jude had to experience was like a stab to my heart, and I felt the need to physically react (the number of times I paced the room in frustration and heartache are embarrassing).

If I was forced to criticize this novel, the only thing I could say is it may benefit from some mild editing, and I say that for a specific reason. The sheer length of this book (a whopping 814 pages) may be slightly intimidating for a reader. To be perfectly honest, it almost scared me away from the book. By cutting down some of the longer internal monologues and maybe eliminating the intensely graphic self-harm scenes, the page count could be cut significantly without losing the brilliance of the main story.

Another thing I usually discuss in my reviews is the ending, and without spoiling too much, I can say I honestly don’t know how I feel about it. Yanagihara somehow managed to take a stereotypically upsetting ending and made it happy. Somber yet content, because Jude finally got what he wanted in life.

I would recommend this book to everyone who can get their hands on it, yet also warn them to proceed with caution since it covers some jaw-droppingly horrendous topics. It’s well balanced out by the joys one might find in everyday life, yet the very description of someone hurting themselves could make someone pretty queasy. I was somewhat doubtful when the store clerk told me this book would change my life, but I’m delighted to be proven wrong. I’ll never forget Jude and Willem as I navigate my life; Jude when my mind is trying to convince me that I don’t belong, and Willem whenever someone I love reels me back into reality.

p-trans 5

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