This review is part of our Love Yourshelf Goodreads bookclub and our ongoing Book Reviews project.
A Little Life shyly tells its readers exactly what it’s about. A man in black and white contorts his face on the cover in a blend of pleasure and pain, his hand limp against his face, his eyes tightly squeezed shut. Hanya Yanagihara released her second book, the eight-hundred paged A Little Life, in 2015 to instant acclaim. It quickly because a Man Booker Prize finalist and was labeled everything from “capricious and consuming” to “the great gay novel.” While a majority of initial reviews touted praise, A Little Life would leave a polarizing legacy. One thing’s for sure: A Little Life is not the 800-page story of four artistic in New York that it was sold as, and you will quickly find yourself drowning in waters more dark and dazzling than you could have imagined.
A Little Life begins as a bildungsroman about four friends attending college in New England before they all cluster around New York studying law, waiting tables, making art, stage acting, and doing exactly what it is that you think people in New York must do. It is initially youthful, romantic, and unassuming with no real stakes, full of cooking and college anecdotes. You have extroverted painter J.B., actor-turned-server Willem, and introverted architect Malcolm, all of their careers and personal lives obviously about to crescendo into success. A Little Life is delightful in its portrayal of the nonchalant daily realities of diverse characters, all of whom are allowed to embody their identities largely without interrogation or antagonism. While one could rightfully criticize A Little Life for failing to engage with the adversity racial and queer communities face, it is refreshing to read a work more focused on success than adversity.
After a rather thin veneer of one-hundred pages, A Little Life drops its innocuous disguise as a novel about an ensemble cast and begins a long-winded case study of Jude St. Francis. Jude is the law clerk next to his artist friends, the quiet one next to the loud, the one of humble and haunting beginnings next to the privileged and wealthy. Miraculously, all four of the boys achieve success in their careers with relatively little roadblocks, and reading it unfold feels unreal and dreamlike. In the snap of a finger, Jude grows from a promising pure math major to a law student to an assistant to the U.S. attorney, yet success cannot cure all ills.
A Little Life isn’t the story of what’s gone wrong, but rather the agonizing story of living in the aftermath. Yanagihara is not interested in unrealistic portrayals of healing. From Jude’s past come immutable personality traits and habits that permanently affect his relationships, his work, and his self-image. Relentlessly, they never fade and become harder to handle as he grows older. Many readers and critics have dismissed A Little Life altogether because of this premise, calling it torture porn, sadistic, and unrealistic in the lengths that it displays suffering. What few critics want to confront is the truths of how childhood trauma impacts adult relationships. Jude is a character study in how childhood abuse is statistically linked with higher instances of relationship violence, mental illness, self-harm, and disability in ways that are inextricably linked. With that being said, one can’t be blamed if one decides to put A Little Life down and never finish. Thankfully, A Little Life flies to heights that match its violent depths.
A Little Life is most interested in focusing positively and realistically on how personal relationships can tether us down to the earth when nothing else can. It asks us what we owe to others and what we owe to ourselves. Unexpectedly and delightfully, it even begins to bloom into romance. A Little Life is a rare and realistic representation of a healthy relationship with a partner who has been abused and follows partners actively trying to work through traumas that can be assuaged but never fully healed. What makes A Little Life feel so full of love its dedication to showing that love is work but will always be worth it. A partner can never fix their lover, but they can help each other wade out storms, and there will inevitably be days where neither can be a saint, and that’s allowed. Though it takes hundreds of pages and fictional decades, A Little Life is about how love is all that gets some of us through the day, and it is singularly the most honest and realistic portrayal of friendships and relationships I’ve ever read.
If I had to describe A Little Life in one sentence: there is heaven and there is hell and there is no earth in between. It possesses a timeless and fairytale-like quality where a hopeless beginning crescendos into an intoxicating high, and even though the past will forever intensely sting, there are still reasons to stay alive. A Little Life is a book I needed to read. I feel like it cracked me open as a person in ways that no other novel has ever done.