I have been staring at my computer screen for close to an hour trying to figure out how to begin this review. A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara’s sophomore novel, is completely unlike anything I have ever read before.
I hope you’ll forgive me if I borrow the Goodreads synopsis:
“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.”
After I had turned the last page – and finally stopped crying – I sat and tried to figure out how I would describe this book. I’ve heard it called many things, but, somehow, none of them encompass everything that is A Little Life. It is so many things, but it is also more than the sum of it’s parts. Honestly, I can’t even begin to break it down, because this review would be about ten pages long. Instead, I will simply say: this book is amazing, incredible, and unquestionably worthy of the hype it has been getting.
It is also, by far, the most depressing novel I have ever read. For the final three days of reading and a full twenty-four hours afterwards, I could not shake an overwhelming feeling of sadness. The morning after I finished reading this book, I woke up feeling as if I were about to cry. It is that sad. But it’s also, surprisingly, worth it.
He had looked at Jude, then, and had felt that same sensation he sometimes did when he thought, really thought of Jude and what his life had been: a sadness, he might have called it, but it wasn’t a pitying sadness; it was a larger sadness, one that seemed to encompass all the poor striving people, the billions he didn’t know, all living their lives, a sadness that mingled with a wonder and awe at how hard humans everywhere tried to live, even when their days were so very difficult, even when their circumstances were so wretched. Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It’s so sad, and yet we all do it.
A Little Life is about four friends – JB, Malcolm, Willem, and Jude – and their post-college journey to success. But, as it states in the synopsis, the novel really centers around Jude. Jude’s story is one of the most difficult things I have ever read. Mostly because it was more terrible than I could ever have imagined – seriously, I’m still deeply upset over the idea that anyone has had to go through the things inflicted upon him – but also, partly because I found myself relating to him the most. Compared to his, my life has been heaven, but that doesn’t mean I’ve always seen it that way. I think this is due in part to Yanagihara’s brilliance; she creates a deeply scarred character, but allows readers to empathize with him on a very basic level. I have never, never wanted to hug a fictional character so badly.
One of the things that really struck me about this book was the writing. I’ve spent the past two years in grad school learning how to write fiction, and, in A Little Life, Yanagihara does most of the things I’ve been taught not to do. But it totally works. For me, as someone who pays attention to the writing just as much as to the story itself (a long-standing habit), this was really disorienting, but, the more I think about it, the more I think it enhanced my appreciation of the book. Because both the story and the writing made me feel deeply uncomfortable. But that’s just what this novel is.As I read back what I’ve written already, I can see why it might give the impression that I didn’t love this book. But I really did. I think that’s a testament to just how good this book is: it may cause hours of crying, result in days of depression, make me intensely uncomfortable, and still be one of the best books I have read in a long time.
If I were a different kind of person, I might say that this whole incident is a metaphor for life in general: things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.
There are many things I loved about this book. I loved that a significant number of the characters were LGBTQIA, but were also distinctly not defined by this part of themselves. Despite the fact that sexual orientation does play a part in the plot, they were, like everyone else in the book, just people. I loved that the book follows the lives of all four friends, even though it always comes back to Jude. I loved the happy moments – there are two or three that immediately come to mind – and how touching they were. I loved that the characters recognize each other’s boundaries, but don’t let it prevent them from showing genuine affection. I loved that it was, essentially, about what it means to be human. Yanagihara brilliantly showcased human nature in the light of unspeakable tragedies. I just absolutely loved it.
As much as I adore A Little Life, I can’t recommend it to everyone. Telling someone to read this book feels like saying, “I think you should be unhappy for however long it takes you to read eight-hundred pages.” If you’re interested in it, read it. But if you can’t stand watching bad things on the news or hearing about the terrible things people do to one another and themselves (both emotionally and physically), this book might not be for you. That said, I hope you read it. It is a beautiful piece of art. Just plan a few nights out with friends while you’re in the midst of this book. It helps, I promise.
If you’ve read A Little Life, I would love to hear your thoughts!