A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Published by Doubleday on March 10, 2015
Genres: [Adult] Literary Fiction, Contemporary
Format: Audiobook –> Hardcover
Source: Audible –> Purchased
5 Stars, Completed January 13, 2016
– SPOILER free –
How do I even begin?
If you’ve read other reviews where readers said they enjoyed this book those reviewers are absolutely mad. This book intrigued, consumed, impressed, stunned, humbled, and perhaps even destroyed me, but it’s a stretch to say that I enjoyed it. A Little Life is the most depressingly bleak and disturbing book I have ever read. It’s one that leaves you at a loss for words, makes you sit there for a while thinking about what you’ve just read, and stimulates you to cry upon your awareness that this book, though fiction, has very real, nonfiction themes attached to it.
Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is an alternating present and past reflection of the lives of four friends that graduate from a prestigious New England college from their mid-twenties into their fifties. There is handsome Willem, a struggling actor hoping to make it big someday; JB, a confident and sometimes callous painter wanting entry to the distinctive art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a recognized firm; and brilliant, enigmatic Jude, a talented litigator only intimidating in court. Each yearn for their breakthrough into society and discovery of their place in life. It seems that early on, Jude is the only one that has settled into a successful, adult lifestyle. It’s also evident that he’s the centerpiece that anchors their friendship, but as the readers read and our cast ages, readers learn how Jude increasingly becomes a broken man unable to overcome the unspeakable trauma his mind and body has endured. Will love and friendship heal him or will he forever be haunted by these scars and demons of the past?
I could spend days discussing this book and it’s heartbreakingly beautiful qualities, from the quintessential flawed characters, captivating writing, LGBTQ+ and ethnic diversity mentions, tasteful musical and art influences, to the New York City backdrop, but all of this would be meaningless to go into detail unless you’ve read this yourself. (Please message me if you have and would like to discuss it. I need a friend to vent my fictional woes!) So instead I’d like to focus on the key points that made this book so meaningful to me.
The only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are-not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving-and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad-or good-it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.
A Little Life at its heart is about friendship. It embodies so many powerful but realistically flawed levels of the interactions between people. The quote above in particular illustrates the risk and criticisms that are attached with friendships so perfectly. On my blog, I’ve mentioned before how I often felt that friendships were more temporary entities in my life, in that so many of my friends and I have drifted apart in the past. Because of the idea that people come and go within our lives, I’ve tried to distance myself from having serious friendships. This lack of trust and skepticism towards new relationships have inhibited me from meeting new people and being a possible happier version of myself. Stumbling upon Jude’s advice to young Felix about how the only way you’ll improve yourself and experience the best in life is to take risks and listen to criticisms was a punch in the stomach but something I really needed to read.
The person he loved was sick, and would always be sick, and his responsibility was not to make him better but to make him less sick.
There were also plenty of moments in which I could feel myself tearing up for the utter devastation the characters had to suffer but it wasn’t until I got to this honest revealing did I become a blubbering mess. This was yet another segment of the story that rang so true for me, and one I could understood and relate with so well. For people that have had family or friends that have gone through difficult times, depression, or illness, you would understand what I mean by when I say how it hurts so much when you’re the bystander-sometimes it feels as if your pain is not any less than the victim’s. It breaks your heart irreparably to see the person you care and love in pain, and what’s worse is your realization that their pain may be something you can never alleviate.
But what was happiness but an extravagance, an impossible state to maintain, partly because it was so difficult to articulate?
What makes me distinguish A Little Life apart from other stories I’ve read is how entirely accurate it approaches depicting real life-both the beautiful and the ugly. This story reveals brutal truths that are often omitted in literature and are seldom voiced aloud in conversation. Man’s ugliest and most vulnerable, helpless, and desperate moments were displayed. And it states how true happiness is unattainable and rarely permanent but yet we still accept life for what it is and live.
And lastly, I’d like to talk about an aspect of a book I hardly ever dwell on in my reviews: the cover. Either the cover is stunning (and everyone can judge that themselves) or it’s not. But I must say, I really love this cover and believe that the meaning and thought behind it should be praised. The primary reason why I pushed this so high on my TBR shelf (along with insistent recommendations by fellow book bloggers and readers) is because I recognized “Orgasmic Man” on the cover. Peter Hujar was an influential New York based photographer and artist of the 20th century that died of AIDS. I’ve always admired his unconventional use of monochromatic tones, and minimalistic and bare aesthetics to show human beauty. Though Yanagihara probably didn’t intend the model on the cover to depict any particular character in the story itself, I couldn’t help but think that Jude was him and he was Jude. In the photograph-despite it connoting sexual pleasure from its name-you can’t distinguish if he’s actually in ecstasy or pain. I can’t imagine another fitting image to use for A Little Life.
Despite my infinite praise, I must acknowledge and divulge that this is not a book for everyone. There are mature and difficult themes explored in this. In fact, A Little Life carries every possible trigger warning imaginable; there’s graphic violence, all types of abuse (substance, sexual, physical, emotional), death, depression, self-mutilation and self-harm, suicide, etc. Even so, I still think it’s a priority read for those that don’t mind a massive book and want to be left thoughtful, moved, and inspired at the final page turn.
This will be one that will consume your life and captivate you until the moment you put it down. Without deviation from the promised premise, it will break your heart for its sheer honesty and raw reflection on friendship, humanity, and life-entities usually too complex and difficult to convey in words but Yanagihara still manages to do it effectively and exquisitely. It will also remain a memorable read for it’s charmingly flawed characters and insightful depth. And for those reasons, this brilliantly written book is anything but little. It’ll be one that you won’t be able to let go for a long time.