I was hesitant at first with picking this up because I thought A Little Life revolved around four white dudes and their #whitepeopleproblems. But oh, was I incredibly mistaken. The cast of characters in this one is far from what I thought; it tackles a variety of topics such as sexuality, race, disabilities, mental illness, and so much more.
Not what I expected and for once, I was glad to be so off-track.
If you’re looking to diversify your reading (as you should!!), this book has it all:
- POC characters.
- Multiple LGBTQ+ ships.
- Disabled main character.
- Honest look on mental health and mental illnesses.
This review contains *spoilers*.
This profound, tragic, memorable book centered around four college roommates from a small Massachusetts college moving to New York to make their way, is more complex than meets the eye. First and foremost, Yanagihara is a storyteller and her detailed and complex characters drive her work. 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cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity.
Let’s take a minute to start from the beginning and really understand each member that creates this dynamic foursome:
Jude St. Francis (aka the one who deserves the whole wide world and more):
We get to know Jude slowly but surely, and the one thing I remember most was how I truly enjoyed the specificity and depth of his character. He made me see the world anew and think differently as well.
Also, I keep going back in my mind to his first and only social worker, “and the first person who had never betrayed him,” and every time I just end up in tears.
“I don’t see why I have to talk about it at all,” he muttered at her once. He knew she had read his records from Montana; he knew she knew what he was.
She was quiet. “One thing I’ve learned,” she said, “you have to talk about these things while they’re fresh. Or you’ll never talk about them. I’m going to teach you how to talk about them, because it’s going to get harder and harder the longer you wait, and it’s going to fester inside you, and you’re always going to think you’re to blame. You’ll be wrong, of course, but you’ll always think it.”
She was Jude’s rock, and seeing her slowly disappear made my everything hurt. Ana was good people, the best.
“You’re going to be great at college,” she said. She shut her eyes. “The other kids are going to ask you about how you grew up, have you thought about that?”
“Sort of,” he said. It was all he thought about.
“Mmph,” she grunted. She didn’t believe him either. “What are you going to tell them?” And then she opened her eyes and looked at him.
“I don’t know,” he admitted.
“Ah, yes,” she said. They were quiet. “Jude,” she began, and then stopped. “You’ll find your own way to discuss what happened to you. You’ll have to, if you ever want to be close to anyone. But your life—no matter what you think, you have nothing to be ashamed of, and none of it has been your fault. Will you remember that?”
It was the closest they had ever gotten to discussing not only the previous year but the years that preceded it, too. “Yes,” he told her.
She glared at him. “Promise me.”
But even then, he couldn’t believe her.
She sighed. “I should’ve made you talk more,” she said. It was the last thing she ever said to him. Two weeks later—July third—she was dead.”
I had to stop myself from crying then. Her death was all I thought about in the days following. It impacted more than I anticipated, which just goes to show how every single character in A Little Life was extremely well developed. Even when we only have a glimpse of them on the page.
“You won’t understand what I mean now, but someday you will: the only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.”
Willem Ragnarsson aka the best of friends you’ll ever have:
Oh man, the love I have for this one is hard to capture in words. Willem was what made this novel start off so promising for me. The love and patience he has for his friends, especially for Jude, was truly inspiring. And their connection in their twenties was on a whole other level.
“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.”I wanted Willem, who was humble, hardworking and diligent, to have everything he deserved, everything he desired. He was my favorite.
“Sometimes he wakes so far from himself that he can’t even remember who he is. “Where am I?” he asks, desperate, and then, “Who am I? Who am I?”
And then he hears, so close to his ear that it is as if the voice is originating inside his own head, Willem’s whispered incantation. “You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs.
“You’re a New Yorker. You live in SoHo. You volunteer for an arts organization; you volunteer for a food kitchen.
“You’re a swimmer. You’re a baker. You’re a cook. You’re a reader. You have a beautiful voice, though you never sing anymore. You’re an excellent pianist. You’re an art collector. You write me lovely messages when I’m away. You’re patient. You’re generous. You’re the best listener I know. You’re the smartest person I know, in every way. You’re the bravest person I know, in every way.
“You’re a lawyer. You’re the chair of the litigation department at Rosen Pritchard and Klein. You love your job; you work hard at it.
“You’re a mathematician. You’re a logician. You’ve tried to teach me, again and again.
“You were treated horribly. You came out on the other end. You were always you.”
In the end, all I can say is I LOVED HIM SO FUCKING MUCH.
Malcolm Irvine the “noncommittal” and conventional one:
We got to know so little about Malcolm that at first all I associated with him was his money and work. I did, however, love how he slowly but surely found his passion and ambition while renovating each and every one of his friends’ houses. You could feel his devotion and dedication pouring off the page.
Jean-Baptiste “JB” Marion the self-involved one:
I don’t even know where to start with JB because he had a lot going on that ended up affecting all of them. But I do want to focus on one major event that destroyed what had been more than twenty years of friendship when he decided hurt Jude in the most traumatising way by “impersonating” him. And I was gobsmacked even more when we got to see the aftermath it left on both sides. I always loved seeing the four of them together. They truly had something special. And I still can’t forgive him for ruining it like that; for hurting Jude like that.
“Why did you do that, JB? Why did you do that to him, of all people?”
And then, suddenly, things began to turn a bit sour for me… There’s just such a thing as too much tragedy in novels, and I’m not sure the author got that. At a certain point when truly atrocious things were happening time after time after time, I was left feeling numb.
- Jude has a profoundly disturbing (disturbing doesn’t even begin to describe it) childhood from literally day one.
- Jude gets abused, sold into prostitution, kidnapped, run over by a car—and all before the age of fifteen.
- Jude began a relationship that quickly turned out to be abusive and deadly, and it had its long-term reverberations.
- Jude loses the people important to him the instant they truly connect. MULTIPLE TIMES.
- Jude has to get his legs amputated.
- Jude tries to end his life. MULTIPLE TIMES.
- The more the novel progressed, the worse things were getting in Jude’s life.
Willem the Hero/ Ragnarsson the Terrible perfectly describes how it felt hearing about all the horrors Jude went through:
“He felt that he had in some ways learned more about Jude in the past year than he had in the past twenty-six, and each new thing he learned was awful: Jude’s stories were the kinds of stories that he was unequipped to answer, because so many of them were unanswerable. The story of the scar on the back of his hand—that had been the one that had begun it—had been so terrible that Willem had stayed up that night, unable to sleep, and had seriously contemplated calling Harold, just to be able to have someone else share the story with him, to be speechless alongside him.”
The more I read, the more I understood that there was no mercy, particularly for Jude. He went through so much intense shit, and it got to a point where it was physically painful to read. Some stories were so terrible that it had left me with a full night of contemplation. Where were the silver linings?
I talked it over with my mother and the more I discussed it, the more I realized how livid I was at the manipulativeness I felt in the writing. I mean, Willem got into a fucking car accident by the last hundred pages or so and I felt NOTHING. That’s how messed up I found this book. My favorite characters dies and I feel nothing. And I quickly realized that it wasn’t me, it was the book. At a certain point after you read about only pain, pain and pain, you end up feeling nothing at all. It was just too much for me. Don’t get me wrong, A Little Life was a good book, but by the end, I was more than ready to leave.
So I’m not sure whether I loved this book as much as I did in the first part (because it had some lightness in it) or if I’m tremendously disappointed as I felt in the last part (because it had so much darkness in it). A Little Life has been pretty well talked up so my expectations were clearly high. But still, it…it did disappoint a bit.