Sometimes you can forget just how much power a book can have – at least, that’s how I felt after reading A Little life. A story about love, friendship, and life – which sounds completely vague, but it’s hard to go into detail without breaking down into tears. I finished this book on the first day of this year and finally I can post a review.
When four graduates 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cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their centre of gravity.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.
Hanya Yanagihara made the Man Booker nominations with this novel, and it’s easy to see why. From the very first page she offers up beautiful descriptions and some great lines, but what drives this story is the extraordinary character development. The book follows a group of four friends: Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm. We follow them through their lives, starting when they’re in their early twenties, and it’s difficult not to care about them when you spend over 700 hundred pages with them. Even now when someone mentions the name Willem or starts humming ‘Hey Jude’ by the Beatles, my heart hurts.
Willem is the handsome, wannabe actor that you fall in love with, JB the outspoken artist who will offend you yet still manage to charm his way in, Malcolm the uncertain architect, and finally Jude, who is the real mystery. You watch them as they make their way through the spectacle that is life, dealing with jealousy, success, relationships, and more. Jude is the only character who is entirely closed off, with an unspeakable past which will have you guessing – and, let me tell you, when you find out the details you’ll wish you could turn back the pages and not know. You want them all to have their happy ending, and you never know whether or not Hanya is going to give it to you.
There are few bits that might irritate you – such as the lack of insight to any female character whatsoever. There are a few secondary characters that happen to be female, but they are not at all necessary for the main story. As much as this irritates me, it’s hard to dislike being so completely immersed in the lives of these four men. I would have liked to see some stronger female characters, as every female character in the book is normally partnered up with a man who has a much bigger role – it definitely shows when I can’t remember a single female character name now, but I still can name Harold, Ezra, Richard, and more. You get the idea.
Harrowing, desperate, utterly heart-breaking – just a few words I’d use to describe this whirlwind of emotions. It’s painful, but brilliantly so. The book tears you down just to put you back together again, only to tear you down even more than the first time. It brought me to tears, made me smile, made me laugh, made me want to put it in the freezer and run far, far away where it can’t hurt me. You’ll want to scream at these characters, hug them, laugh with them and, yes, sometimes punch them in the nose. I’d forgotten how much a book could make you feel and can safely say that this was an experience unlike any other, I can’t recommend it enough. I would advise though that you carve out time for this book and make sure that you’re in a very happy, stable state when you start it because you’re going to need strength to get through it all.