Where to begin?
I finished this book several days ago and I feel like I am still dealing with the emotional fallout of it. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this book has changed the way I look at the world. Yanagihara considers the secret lives we hide behind our exteriors, the long lasting scars of abuse and harm and the relationships that can see us through.
It’s a bitter sweet book, one that I want to recommend to friends and family but I would also feel guilty for putting them through such an ordeal even if it was in search of the beauty of the prose that carries this book through its 700 pages effortlessly.
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cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their centre of gravity.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.
The cover itself of this book (at least, the edition I read) seemed very deceptive. It gives little away about the plot and the back is lacking a proper blurb. In reading, this slowly began to seem appropriate as the role of secrets in this story began to become clear.
Yanagihara creates a group of four friends who instantly come to life. Jude is at the centre of it all. He is the quiet mystery, someone they all love and rely on but who they actually know very little about. Willem is stereotypically good and it brought joy to my heart to read about his devotion and protective attitude towards Jude. JB introduces some needed conflict in the group to keep the plot engaging. It is clear he is always well meaning but he often slips into his narcissistic moments where he becomes unaware of the lives of the others. And Malcolm is quiet, like Jude, but only because he is living with the weight of his parents’ expectations of him which are fighting against his desires.
These are, of course, only brief summaries of each of them but they are characters, more rich and well developed than any I have read before. I was immediately tricked into caring for them. (I say tricked because, as far as an author is a god of their characters, Yanagihara is far from a kind god.) I wanted them all to succeed and over time, each of them finds prosperity.
But A Little Life is exactly what it promises. Within its pages, it captures the life of Jude St. Francis and spans more than fifty years in all. This is a life of suffering and this is where the book becomes difficult to read.
While each of the characters are given time to develop throughout, Jude is most definitely the protagonist. Things happen to him in his childhood that quite understandably break him. He lives his adult life never feeling worthy of love or kindness. He is consumed by guilt and a fear that he is exactly what he has been taught he is. It is horrible to watch him tear himself apart because others have created a victim in him who will always blame himself.
I have read several reviews online that rate this book very poorly simply because they found the quantity and lengths of Jude’s struggles unrealistic and melodramatic. I understand that perhaps Yanagihara has tried to envision a worst case scenario, one in which every turn of the road leads to a place darker than the last, but I can’t argue with the emotions and the sorrow that this book evoked in my heart.
The thing that this book couldn’t survive without (in my opinion) is all of those characters around Jude, his friends Willem, JB and Malcolm, Harold and Julia who care for him more than anyone else in the world and Andy who often gets angry with Jude but only because he can’t bear to watch Jude destroy himself so willingly. Without these people to offer their love and kindness to the book, I feel it would simply be too difficult to read. These moments offer sweet reprieve, although this is often soured by Jude’s inability to trust care for what it is.
And the promise of worse things to come was often what made this book terrifying. There are references in the present to things that haven’t yet been revealed in Jude’s past and I knew that with each new fact I learnt his life would become harder still. I cannot begin to comprehend the magnitude of it all. It is all too much to take in but Yanagihara illustrates perfectly how each of us are carrying, if not quite as severe scars as Jude, past experiences for better or worse that are invisible to the outside world.
There are so many other elements to this book, JB’s art which chronicles the friends lives, Jude’s tutoring which I always saw as his legacy in a distant, forgotten way, other characters who pass through Jude’s life. They are too numerous to name individually.
Yanagihara has done exactly what was promised and delivered A Little Life, imagined with its triumphs amid its suffering, vignettes into their lives, much like JB’s artwork, and a wonderful picture of how people fade in and out of each other’s lives. But after it all, there is so much sadness, too much horror to contend with.
This book is both beautiful and enough to make you question the hidden lives of everyone and everything around you. Its power is in its simple ability to create a life in pages and ink that before hand had only existed in Yanagihara’s mind. Worldbuilding is more often associated with science fiction and fantasy but this is one of the best examples of worldbuilding I have ever seen. It took me a long time to read and made me question whether I wanted to continue many times but there is beauty in the darkness. That I promise.