A Little Life begins with Jude, the novel’s primary protagonist, moving into a Manhattan apartment with his friend Willem. Jude and Willem were college roommates, along with JB and Malcom, whose various viewpoints and perspectives are told throughout the narrative. Jude is introverted, secretive about his past, obsessive, and experiences severe pain and restrictions in his movement. He is distant even with his closest friends and fearful of being hurt or disappointed, yet thrives in his career as a lawyer. Willem is Jude’s most loyal companion, a faithful friend, an actor and amiable character. JB, spoiled by the women in his family, is an egotistical, self-involved and opinionated artist, yet the hub of the friends and their social scene. And then there is Malcom, a somewhat obtuse, indecisive and conservative architect who has come from privilege and still living with his parents at the age of 27. Social and financial status is an important aspect of the novel and the characters are all successful in their respective fields.
As the novel progresses, Jude’s physical and emotional scarring is revealed, along with his self-loathing and self-destructive behaviour, due to his traumatic childhood in which his parents are non-existent. Whilst the trauma that Jude experienced is gradually, delicately and artfully told, it does make for an emotionally draining read, with harrowing details of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Yanagihara expertly writes Jude’s recollections of abuse in a manner not overly emotive or graphic, yet still manages to instil a strong, heartfelt reaction in the reader. At times I did question why I was reading a book which could be so confronting and wretched but it was so beautifully written, and the characters so vivid, that you can’t help but be drawn in. Whilst Jude constantly seems to have heartache thrown into his life, the novel offsets this with moments of beautiful, uplifting narrative of endurance, friendship and love, and he is determined to move past the obstacles he is presented with.
A Little Life focuses on the friendships and relationships between men, the dynamics of these connections, and the ups and downs, clashes and synchronicities that arise with diverse personalities. In addition to Willem, JB and Malcolm, the reader becomes privy to Jude’s close relationships with his doctor, a university lecturer and a social worker. Feelings and insecurities, the extremes between good and evil, and the difficulties in maintaining a relationships with someone who may be mentally ill are explored. We also see how Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm grow and change (or don’t) over the years, with the novel spanning decades in a predominantly linear fashion, flowing smoothly between the present and flashbacks of characters’ lives and memories.
The novel is character driven with very strong dialogue, and although Yanagihara doesn’t include much about the New York landscape, she does include detailed depictions of art, apartments and buildings. A Little Life is an intelligent book in which the author seems to have done her research. Sadly I had a major spoiler revealed by an inconsiderate person at an audience with the author that I attended a few months back, however thankfully it did little to dampen the impact of the story.
I feel I am merely reiterating the multitude of positive reviews this book has received but it is really a story with characters that leaves a lasting impression on the reader. Have tissues on hand during reading as A Little Life is a very moving book.
“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 pursuing fame in 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 lawyer yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by a degree of trauma that he fears he will not only be unable to overcome – but that will define his life forever.
A novel of extraordinary intelligence and heart, Yanagihara has fashioned a masterful depiction of heartbreak, and a dark and haunting examination of the tyranny of experience and memory.”