a little life

After seeing many, many rave reviews and landing on numerous best-of lists at the end of 2015, I decided to give A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara a try despite my reservations due it to being a major chunkster. From Goodreads:

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cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity.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.

I will agree with most reviewers: A Little Life is an emotionally taxing book; the story is affecting, complicated, and distressing, to say the least. I found the word “devastating” in a lot of comments, however, I’m not sure if it’s because I’m naturally attracted to dark, disturbing material sometimes, but I wasn’t so upset and “destroyed” as some readers were after finishing.

My issues with A Little Life are less with the bad stuff that happens (and I agree they are truly horrid, unspeakable, unfair abuses). Let’s be honest—these (and worse) things really happen to people every day all over the world. The characters’ unwavering commitment to and deep, often unrequited love for Jude baffled me at times. I also had trouble buying that all four friends became rich and wildly successful in their highly competitive careers. And fair warning: apologies occur frequently in this book. The words “I’m sorry” appear pretty much on every single page. I started rolling my eyes at each utterance after a while. Despite being 720 pages, the vagueness throughout the story must have been intentional, too: how are 9/11 and HIV never once mentioned in a book set in New York City spanning several (seemingly recent/current) decades featuring gay characters? It bothered me while reading but on reflection I suppose to give the story a timeless atmosphere.

Much of Yanagihara’s writing is lovely, though, even hinging on poetic at times. You do get a sense for the trauma and sorrow the characters experience, as well as their happy times. I really enjoyed the backstories for JB and especially Willem in the first part of the book. I think she does a fantastic job of making these relationships all feel tangible. While there is a lot of writing here, it never felt too dense or difficult to pick up wherever I left off. Bottom line: I would recommend A Little Life to anyone interested. Give it 100 pages and see what you think at that point.

Read from January 9 to February 18, 2016.

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