I had heard good things about A Little Life, so when its cover – a classic New York tenement building – caught my eye in the bookstore, I bought it. Little did I know that the book was far from a light-hearted narrative of life in the city. Although mostly set in New York, the book is laser-focused on the lives of four (and later just two) friends who met in college; the city is merely the background, the real-world grounding, to the narrative. Yanagihara establishes the group’s dynamic at the outset: Jude is reserved, Willem is charismatic and caring, JB is funny and self-absorbed, and Malcolm is nervous and self-conscious. In the beginning, all four of them narrate various chapters, offering the reader an insight into their thoughts on each other, but as the book progresses, it focuses increasingly on Jude and Willem. As a result, JB and Malcolm’s characters are less developed or interesting. This is even more true for the many side characters referenced throughout the book. Since it is a particularly long novel (over 700 pages), I found it difficult to remember characters who were introduced at various points and then mentioned again much later. Luckily, however, this doesn’t adversely affect the reading experience. In fact, since it is often difficult to figure out the narrator at the start of the chapters, with few clues at your disposal, I have to believe that this state of disorientation and fogginess is intentional, especially as so much of the book is about memory.
“Why, then, does he insist on revisiting and replaying events that happened so long ago? Why can he not simply take pleasure in the present?”p. 461
By the time I was halfway through the book, I was already tired from crying so much. One step forward in Jude’s life was always followed by two steps back; this was true throughout the book. While making for an infuriating and depressing read, Yanagihara calls into question assumptions about the recovery process from trauma, arguing not only that recovery is non-linear, but that it can’t always work if the person doesn’t want it. The author refuses to give the reader a natural narrative arc or a happy ending. At times, it felt like she was daring me to give up, to read something more light-hearted, just as Jude tests everyone in his life. I’m glad I stuck it out – the characters are irresistible, even if sometimes unrealistic, and I had to know how it all would end – but I was also relieved when it was over. Parts of the book are physically painful to read. It would most likely be triggering for people who have been affected by sexual abuse (including child abuse), domestic violence, self-harm, and suicide. I wouldn’t blame anyone for putting it down because they found it too upsetting. Certainly, if you’re looking for joy in your reading material, look elsewhere. But it can be strangely cathartic to cry about someone else’s (fictional) suffering – it may help you to reflect on your own life.
A Little Life is undoubtedly brilliant, yet I hesitate to recommend it. It’s not for everyone. I can’t even say that my reading experience was enjoyable, really. It’s a long, painful, depressing read. The bright points – the few times when Jude realizes that he is loved – feel that much brighter, but they also make the lows even more gut-wrenching. If you persevere, though, the book will show you the best and worst of humanity. Few books will make you feel as much as A Little Life will.
My Ratings (out of 10 As):
Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)
Writing: AAAAAAAA (8)