Still, “Maybe we should call these The Happy Years,” he told Jude one morning. […]
“I don’t know,” Jude said, and although he could only see the edge of his face, Willem could tell he was smiling. “Isn’t that tempting fate a little?”
– A Little Life: The Happy Years –
So, I finally read A Little Life… And let me tell you, I AM NOT OKAY!! I mean, plenty of people had told me that you couldn’t get through this book without having your soul torn into shreds in the process, but nothing could have prepared me for the amount of agony it put me through. I can now no longer say that no book has ever made me cry enough to make my face utterly stained with tears, because after A Little Life, it simply wouldn’t be true anymore. This book pure torture. And it is absolutely phenomenal.
SOME GENERAL INFO:
Title: A Little Life
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Genre: contemporary, literary fiction
Page Count: 720 (paperback); 1018 (e-book)
[I read this in paperback but will be quoting from the e-book, since I have already returned the physical copy to the library 😉 ]
Publication Date: March 10, 2015
Date Read: June 27 – July 16, 2021
Rating: 5/5 Stars
According to its synopsis, A Little Life follows a group of four college friends as they grow up and try to find their place in the world. And that part is true enough. Friendship is a prominent theme in A Little Life, and I couldn’t help but fall for how much these people cared about one another, hurt each other, and loved one another.
But I’d argue this book isn’t so much about JB and his struggles to enter the art world, Malcom’s plans to become an architect, or even Willem’s acting aspirations. Instead, this book is about Jude. It is a story about a broken man trying to come to terms with his past. It is a story about acceptance and self-loathing. It is story about how some things, no matter how hard you might try, can’t be fixed.
If you’ve ever gone through any sort of trauma and are sensitive to seeing that sort of thing represented in literature, I suggest you better run and steer clear of this one. Because whatever terrible thing you can think of, it’s probably featured in A Little Life. This book is going to destroy you, no matter how hard-hearted you might think you are.
And yet, I couldn’t recommend it more. It’s one of those books that gets off to a slow start at first but then slowly snares you in with its gorgeous writing and compelling characters. It will get you invested until you can’t help but feel as though these people are real. It will make you watch these people suffer and tear your soul apart as you realize you are powerless to help them. Go read it if you haven’t yet!
For those of you that have read A Little Life, though:
1) I hope you are okay. I don’t know how you survived, especially if you’re one of those people who already cry over “regular” books. If you need someone to unburden yourself to, don’t hesitate to reach out and we can cry some more together! 😭
2) Let’s talk spoilers! You bet that I have thoughts, and I’m not keeping them to myself! So…
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS IN THE NEXT SECTION! IF YOU HAVEN’T READ A LITTLE LIFE YET AND DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED, STOP READING NOW!
The biggest reason I love A Little Life so much – other than the fact that it made me cry and I am, apparently, a masochist – is its characters. They just felt so real and vulnerable that I couldn’t help but relate to them!
Okay, maybe not Malcolm and JB as much. Malcolm was in the background for most of the story, and JB was mostly of significance when he was being an asshole. I honestly didn’t really care much for him, since the way he always had to be the center of attention and was jealous of everyone and everything really started getting on my nerves. JB you’re so annoyingly egoistic!!
Still, I can see why his friends feel so drawn to him. Having JB around certainly ensures that things never get boring – I mean, that hair project or his attempts to not speak to people in pursuit of racial justice make for some pretty hilarious anecdotes! – and when it truly mattered, JB came through for his friends. He did feel guilty about putting that picture of Jude in his exhibition. And when Willem and Malcolm died, it was JB who stayed at Jude’s bedside. JB might be annoying, but in the end, he does have his heart in the right place and I love him for that.
However, the person I most fell in love with out of the four friends wasn’t Malcolm, JB, or even Willem, but Jude. I mean, how could I not like him? He is always there when his friends need him. He’s smart, but so introverted you almost wouldn’t know it. He loves math!
[Oh my gosh, those nerdy math passages were the best thing ever!!! Yes, the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem is beyond ugly, and I’m so happy someone outside the math sphere is acknowledging this by putting it in a book! Even though Andrew Wiles is undoubtedly a genius, we still need that short, elegant proof!]
And Jude’s horrific past is the saddest thing I’ve ever seen portrayed in fiction. How can someone as pure as Jude deserve this? How can any human being deserve a past like this, for that matter? Every time I thought we had finally seen the worst of it, it got even worse, and I just wanted to reach through those pages, give Jude a hug and tell him he’s a good person, even though I know he probably wouldn’t have believed me. Seeing how he hated himself for what was done to him and how the people who loved him were powerless to help was heartbreaking. Honestly, I kind of want to kill those monks, Brother Luke and all his clients, the caretakers at the orphanage, Dr. Traylor, and Caleb for the abuse they put Jude through!! How could they?!! How could they mistreat and abuse a happy little kid to the point where he hated himself so much he had to cut open his arms to survive and couldn’t even be physically close to the person he loved?
And what sort of society do we live in, where a child that was subjected to sexual abuse so horrific it is beyond imaginable is just shoved away into an orphanage where the abuse continues? Why didn’t anyone intervene? Why wasn’t Jude immediately given help? Why wasn’t he allowed to live with people who were experts in dealing with this kind of trauma and could have gotten him therapy? Why wasn’t he sent to a family who would have loved him? The fact that Jude’s story is one that probably happens more often than we would like to think in real life has me feeling genuinely sick.
My heart was torn to pieces so many times as I watched Jude struggle with his past, and what made it even worse was that certain things were just way too relatable. I am a master at shutting people out, especially where my own well-being is concerned. Or at agreeing to things I don’t actually want to do because I’m scared of losing people if I don’t do them. So that scene where Jude makes rules for himself about how he should best have sex with Willem absolutely broke me. It brought up a lot of emotions I wasn’t prepared to deal with, and I was basically sobbing through the entire chapter.
Speaking of Willem, though: I loved him, too. Not as much as Jude, but my love of Jude is also kind of hard to beat. Willem is, simply put, a good person and a pure soul. He’s there for his disabled brother when no one else is. He defends Jude when others make fun of him, even if it means putting a rift between himself and his other friends. He doesn’t think for a second when given the choice between advancing his career or being there for his friend, because obviously, it will always be Jude for him. Even if it takes him a while to realize it himself.
Honestly, for the longest time, Willem was so perfect that I had a hard time connecting to him. And then sex entered into the equation:
One night, though, he’d had a dream that he and Jude had just had sex (which they had) and that Jude was next to him and crying, trying to stay silent and failing, and he knew, even in the dream, why he was crying: because he hated what he was doing; he hated what Willem was making him do. The next night, he asked Jude outright: Do you like this? And he had waited, not knowing what the answer would be, until Jude had said yes, and then he had been relieved yet again: that the fiction could continue, that their equilibrium would remain unchanged, that he wouldn’t have to have a conversation that he didn’t know how to being, much less lead. He had an image of a little boat, a dinghy, rocking wildly on the waves, but then righting itself again and sailing placidly on, even though the waters beneath it were black and filled with monsters and floes of seaweed that threatened with every current to pull the poor small boat beneath the ocean’s surface where it would glug out of sight and be lost.
But every so often, to sporadically and randomly to track, there would be moments when he would see Jude’s face as he pushed into him, or, after, would feel his silence, so black and total that it was almost gaseous, and he would know that Jude had lied to him: that he had asked a question to which only one answer was acceptable, and Jude had given him that answer, but that he hadn’t meant it.A Little Life, p. 728-729
Here, we finally get to see Willem’s more selfish side. He knows his actions are hurting Jude, but since he doesn’t want to accept the consequences of what this might mean for their relationship, he chooses not to see it – at least for a while.
In that moment, I kind of hated Willem. But it also made him seem a lot more real. So when he couldn’t ignore what he was doing to the person he loved any longer and finally got Jude to open up to him, I actually came out of this loving Willem more. Yes, he’s flawed, but he’s also human. And his death, as well as Jude’s reaction to it, absolutely destroyed me.
My favorite character by far, however, was Harold, and by extension, Julia. And the Harold chapters were also the ones that really got to me. I don’t think I made it through a single one of them without sobbing. (Especially the post-Caleb one and the very last one – oh my god, Hanya Yanagihara, was this much pain really necessary??!) The world really needs more people like Harold and Julia. They’ve already been through so much, and yet they love Jude unconditionally and welcome him into their family. They open their home to Jude’s friends. They don’t care that Jude never fully lets them in or that he won’t tell them anything about his past. They let Jude push them away again and again but still love him and support him in whichever way he will let them. THEY’RE JUST AWESOME, OKAY!
And so is Andy, for that matter. I mean, being Jude’s doctor can’t be easy, but Andy never wavers in his dedication to him. Never mind that he’s technically only an orthopedic surgeon. Never mind that having Jude as a patient means having to call him in the middle of the night to make sure he hasn’t killed himself yet. Never mind his constant frustration about what Jude is doing to his body. Andy is always there for Jude. He’s the kind of friend you’re lucky to meet once in your lifetime, if at all.
Aside from the characters, however, one thing I really liked about A Little Life was how it portrayed mental illness and trauma. Way too often in literature, a character’s struggles simply fade away once they fall in love, giving the impression that there is some type of miracle cure for depression and that you simply have to try harder to be happy if you’re struggling.
But A Little Life doesn’t do this. Instead, it paints a very realistic picture of what it means to have faced something so terrible that you can never fully recover. It unflinchingly shows the toll physical and mental illnesses can take on a person and the people in their life, who have to watch someone they love suffer and are seemingly unable to help. It shows that you can’t “fix” a person, but that being there for them and continuing to reach out can already go a long way. And it shows that you are worth loving no matter what, even if you yourself don’t see it. You don’t have to be “fixed” to be worthy of love, and the fact that Jude never fully came around to seeing this is one of the saddest things ever.
So yeah, I think I’ll leave off at that depressive note, since I’ve already rambled on for quite a bit! I hope you’ve gathered from this review that I absolutely loved this book. I mean, it made me cry, so that was basically a given 😂
But anyway, let me know what you thought of A Little Life if you’ve read it – which I seriously hope you have if you’ve made it this far! Did it make you sob uncontrollably? Did it destroy you as much as it destroyed me? Who was your favorite character? I would love to know all of these things and more!