A Little Life is a modern day classic that everyone should read. It is an immersive and dark novel set in the present day about four friends who meet at college and have now moved to New York to find success. Throughout the reading of this novel, as I hurtled towards the devastating ending of A Little Life I texted a friend saying that I was in shock and that I honestly didn’t know how I was supposed to read something else after that.
While A Little Life was harrowing and traumatic, it is one of my favorite books I have ever read. To be timely, if I was going to sing “thank u, next” about anything it would be A Little Life. It taught me patience, it taught me love, and boy did it ever teach me pain. We follow four friends: Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm as they find success in New York. We focus on Jude and the unspoken trauma that has caused him to have difficulty walking, to self-harm, and live a life full of secrets. These friendships, while they are tested as each of them struggles with betrayal, addiction, and pride, are held together by Willem, JB, and Malcolm’s complete dedication to Jude.
The true, lifelong friendships that were in this novel were the love story that I needed but never knew I wanted. I’ve read a lot of love stories about a lot of different kinds of relationships, family relationships, romantic relationships, I have never read a story about friendships as deep as the friendships Willem, Malcolm, JB, and Jude share.
“Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified. Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was a feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.”
With A Little Life, there is the need to set aside your disbelief when it comes to some of the fantastical elements of the story. For example, each character finds extreme success, JB in the art world, Malcolm as an architect, Willem as an actor, and Jude as a lawyer. The idea of all four of the friends finding success in the ways that these characters do is unlikely in reality. There is also no mention of any significant world events taking place which helps keep this novel in the present day for eternity with nothing to separate it from any other time. The lack of world events like 9/11 or the War on Terrorism, is poignant since all of the themes that are present in this novel are present in real life, in the past, and will be in the future. There is also not a steady movement of time, months come and go without being mentioned, we read about things that happen only in a few days, and then we read about years as they fly by. It reads like life does, time flying by us without us being able to stop it.
A Little Life contains scenes of extreme violence and trauma. I am one who doesn’t like trigger warnings generally, I think that in our day to day life we don’t get trigger warnings and so I tend not to use them in my reading life. I do this because I don’t want to stay away from a book because of its trigger warnings. I think A Little Life is one of those books that I would have stayed away from if I had read all of the trigger warnings. And while I can understand to some extent the want and need to stay away from topics that can be difficult, to stay away from A Little Life is taking away an experience from yourself that is worth having. It is gut-wrenching, emotional, and hard to read, Jude suffers from unspeakable traumas that he will never recover from, however, the story of his life, and the people who are a part of it, is a beautiful one.
I’ll be honest, I read A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara in October and I needed this past month to really reflect and think about the novel. A Little Life is the most difficult book I have ever read. It is “too much” in all aspects of that term. Everything in this novel is exaggerated, love, pain, success, trauma, etc – however, because everything is exaggerated the story itself doesn’t feel exaggerated. I cried for hours after finishing this book. It left me feeling raw and empty, but I am truly grateful for having read it. A Little Life will be a novel that will stick with me for a very, very long time.
My Rating: 5/5 Stars