There are plenty of valid reasons not to read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, not least among them the fact that it clocks in at 720 pages or that it features gruesome, painful-to-read scenes of self-mutilation and abuse. But any reader that skips this book on these or any other bases would be doing a great disservice to her- or himself. I finished this book sobbing and heartbroken and wrecked and nothing short of amazed at Yanagihara’s ability to bring this story so vividly and movingly to life.
While the book at first appears to be the story of four college friends as they mature, seek love, find success, and struggle with maintaining their friendship over a period of some thirty-odd years, the novel truly comes to center on one man of these four, the most tortured and mysterious among them. Unfortunately a brief plot synopsis just won’t suffice to capture the complexities of this story, to give you a true picture of what you’re getting yourself into when you decide to embark on the valiant task of finishing this novel. A more full and detailed description will spoil the beauty of Yanagihara’s ever-so-careful construction, will eliminate that element of surprise that I so cherish when engrossed in a really good book. I take great lengths to go into reading as blindly as possible, abstaining from seeing any reviews beyond the initial one that prompted me to select the title, never even skimming the book’s inner flap synopsis prior to reading.
But I will give you this: A Little Life becomes the story of one Jude St. Francis, a man with an enviably devoted circle of friends, a student of logic and law, someone with a brutal past that, at every turn, continues to shape his interactions with the world, a childhood of secrets so horrific that he is unable to reveal its entire nature to even his most trusted confidants. Yanagihara crafts an epic story around how Jude struggles with unbearable demons, considers if he can make a life worth living out of his tortured history, and fails to deal with a past that is in every way defining his present.
Wisely, Yanagihara decided to reveal to readers the truth of Jude’s upbringing in the way that memories often present themselves; at first only vaguely hinted at, then parsed out a bit at a time, interspersed with the ongoing events of current life as elements of the past become relevant or once the mental muscle to suppress them is completely compromised. There was no other way that the narrative of Jude’s past life could have been written; it would have been far too painful and sorrowful to consume all at once. Because Jude’s past was dealt in increments, readers share a common experience with Jude’s loved ones regarding those undisclosed parts of his story. We experience the awfulness of not-knowing and an ever-growing curiosity, paired with a desire to protect ourselves from what must be a horrific truth, an acknowledgement that knowing what happened to Jude may be too painful to bear.
Yanagihara practiced this careful provision of information throughout the entirety of this story. Many sections of the novel end on cliff hangers, and then she teasingly begins the next section without immediately answering readers’ burning questions. Sometimes the author even pushes readers to a point a few years in the future or centers the next block of narrative on a different character than the one she left us off with, so we are constantly forging ahead to find clues as to what happened. It was a frustrating and wearying and distressing experience for me as a reader, but also an incredibly compelling choice on Yanagihara’s part.
Just a few moments after I completed A Little Life, my husband came home to find me sobbing on the couch. I immediately provided him with a detailed explanation of the plot, replete with spoilers, a lame attempt at conveying just what brought me to tears. After he heard all the tragic and miserable elements of the story, he asked me if there had been any levity to the story, confused as to why I would continue reading something that made me feel such sorrow. While there certainly are brief periods of lightness and plenty of scenes of beauty throughout (we’ll get to those in a minute), they had nothing to do with the tenacity I applied to reading this book. Rather, the reason I continued reading had everything to do with Yanagihara’s characters. They felt so real to me and were developed so vividly, that I deeply cared for them. I yearned for them to find happiness and had to see if they eventually did. I’m sure the length of the book had something to do with my total immersion in these characters’ lives – you can’t read a 700 page novel without connecting to any of the people that populate it – but I think that Yanagihara also exercised a particular magic of fiction here. I was completely involved with this story and could not abandon it without seeing it through to the conclusion. I’ve never been so mad at a book before – for being so long that I knew it would be days until I finished it, for being so painful to read and yet impossible to put down, for making me care so deeply for people that experienced inordinate hurt and sorrow. My anger toward previous works of art has always been rather one-dimensional and superficial, frustration over authorial choices that I perceived to be silly or vexed by editorial decisions that lessened the novels impact. This type of anger was a whole different experience for me.
But as I said, this story isn’t all sadness. Jude’s narrative is couched in that of his college friends JB, Malcolm, and Willem. JB, an artist, is difficult to like at times, but his sometimes-poor attitude and self-centered ways become so predictable that you start to feel a fondness toward him as well as some disdain. His moments of immaturity are countered, however, by his artistic talent and the content of his work. JB is a painter and he finds professional success re-imagining photographs of his friends in oils and acrylics. Yanagihara provides compelling descriptions of his work, of paintings full of deep and obvious love for his friends, of stunning scenes possessing great beauty. Although JB’s role in Jude’s life falls increasingly to the wayside as the book progresses, his pieces are interwoven through the story, standing as tangible representations of the bond these four men share and the better side of JB. I found Malcolm to be the least developed of the four, but his story is still a source of beauty. Malcolm works as an architect, designing beautiful country homes and glorious New York apartments for his friends. The affection and thoughtfulness that infuse his designs are palpable and the descriptions of his work make me yearn for accompanying visuals of it. And then there is Willem, Jude’s most devoted friend. Willem is the single person we as readers most trust with the tender Jude, proving to be a character whose steadfastness is almost unreal. At first a waiter and struggling actor, Willem’s career steadily grows until he becomes one of the world’s biggest film stars by novel’s end. Willem is just so plainly good on all counts that, in hindsight, he seems unbelievable. But while reading, his character feels absolutely necessary; Yanagihara had to give us someone we could never doubt, a person who we could always rely on to stick by Jude, helping us retain a sense of rightness about the world the author created.
It is this picture of friendship, displayed both in the small moments shared and the larger sense of enduring commitment between characters, that gives both life and light to this story. There are times when these men are in so much pain that there seems no chance for happiness to take hold. But then it does, even if briefly, in the most obvious of ways: through the relationships they possess. And these relationships aren’t limited to what these four share with one another. Other notable characters include Harold, Jude’s beloved law school professor who becomes like family; Andy, a resident-turned-doctor that Jude relies upon ever since the former man’s time in medical school; and Richard, the artist friend that gives Jude a home to suit his unique needs. Even though Jude is surrounded by people that care so deeply for him in such demonstrable ways, it is still not always obvious to readers how he will pull through the struggles in his life. The sad trick is that, through his narratives, we readers begin to think like Jude, doubtful of the world’s inherent goodness and expecting the worst. But then, inevitably, it becomes apparent that the characters peopling his life are be the solution, that they pose the only feasible way of getting through. And then you wonder how you, as a reader, ever could have doubted them.
I started making notes for this review about 400 pages in. When I reached the final page, I deleted everything I wrote. I felt both completely unable to put into words how I felt about a novel that left me so emotionally distraught and absolutely confused as to how to make sense of the feelings and their intensity. The next morning, however, I woke up with a deep-seated desire to write, my mess of feelings translated by time (or maybe rest) into a moderately coherent collection of thoughts that I just had to share. I don’t feel that I have done Yanagihara any justice (which seems to be a common theme in many reviews of her work) but if I hadn’t written a thing, I would have felt deeply unsettled for days. Because that’s the kind of book A Little Life is. A narrative that takes on a life of its own without your permission, that won’t release its grasp on your mind. It’s a story that contemplates so many issues that readers can take their pick: what does it mean to know another person, how much importance should we grant to our histories, how do we face sadness and pain and self-hatred, can we instill hope in the hopeless, is there a point as which life no longer is worth living.
A Little Life is a hard book to recommend. While it resonated with me for days, it also filled me with sorrow in a way that nothing else I’ve read ever has. I believe everyone should read a book as brilliantly crafted and beautifully written as this one, and yet inevitably, readers’ hearts will be broken in the process. Despite how terrible A Little Life will, at times, make audiences feel, reading this novel is ultimately a worthwhile and rewarding endeavor. I would far rather have read something as deeply felt and remarkably moving as this, than to have abstained from doing so for fear of the full range of the experience.