I finished A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara nearly a week ago, and I’m still devastated by it. I haven’t really read anything since I put it down. This novel is expertly crafted, with (mostly) rich, well-developed characters. It will definitely find itself on “Best of 2015” lists in December.
And I just can’t recommend it to you.
I have tried to think of ways to explain the plot of this 720 page (!) book about four men who meet in college and then grow to middle age, and here’s what I came up with:
Terrible things happen. The end.
But I figure you want more, so here’s a haiku:
What’s wrong with your friend?
It’s worse than you imagine
Pain Pain Pain Pain Pain
That doesn’t help either? OK, I’ll try again. At the center of a group of college roommates sits Jude, who has a set of physical injuries and a wall up around his past. As the roommates start their adult lives, they try to understand and protect this complicated and damaged man that they love so much.
This is a difficult book to read if you need light at the end of your reading tunnel. I should have known this when I saw that there’s a section called “The Happy Years” in the MIDDLE of the book. And even then, the happy moments are small and anxious. Like most of the characters, the reader loses trust that everything will work out in the end.
So why is this going to be on the “Best Of” lists? I think there are a couple of reasons. First, I think that this story asks us to hold still with the tiny moments of grace in relationships. Yanagihara is exploring the idea of deep love, stripped away from Hallmark card platitudes and fairy tales. How do you love a person who will never willingly give you his whole self? Or, how do you convey your love for other people if you can’t willingly offer your whole self? If love is not a contract, what is it? What if there is no happily-ever-after?
Second, I think that this book is remarkable for its work to dig into the relational lives of men. All of the major characters are male, and we see each major character grapple with what it means to be loving. The author is female, so the reader can play around with whether the characters seem genuine.
I have recently read two other books that have involved the idea of whether a person can overcome damage inflicted in childhood. Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child looks at the legacies of damage, both culturally and personally. Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset looks at cycles of parent/child relationships. A Little Life is the most complex and affecting of the three, and I’m not sure I will get over it. I’m still crushed.
If you have any trigger issues at all, steer clear of this novel. I mean it. Every last terrible thing is in this book. For the rest of you, pick it up at your own risk. I can’t imagine that you’ll enjoy it, but you’ll definitely come away changed. As for me, I will be hanging out in the Rainbows and Unicorns section of the bookstore for a while.
You can read an interesting article about the author here. In it, she discusses the cover art and the process of bringing this novel to life. And here's an essay she wrote about the art that inspired the book (some spoilers included).