You think A LITTLE LIFE is going to be something it’s not: one of those post-college coming-of-age-in-Manhattan books that takes you along through drug-addled friendships, boozy conversations, new babies, failed marriages, and the like. The start of Hanya Yanagihara’s 813-page novel certainly smacks of books like A FORTUNATE AGE, by Joanna Smith Rakoff, and even Mary McCarthy’s THE GROUP – complex, layered stories that chronicle that path of a group of friends as they navigate the adult world.
But A LITTLE LIFE isn’t A FORTUNATE AGE. It’s not THE GROUP. In fact, I suspect many would be hard-pressed to find an easy contemporary for this complex, tragic story. It’s a singular, unforgettable, searing work, one that navigates the realms of trauma, physical pain, and grief by means of expert language and gorgeous, visceral scene. For the last third of A LITTLE LIFE, I wept, turning the pages and wiping my eyes as the story unfolded, gruesome and true.
The central figure in A LITTLE LIFE is Jude, the one who holds his group of male friends together. He’s the victim of a childhood trauma, one that is revealed to the reader in fits and starts, snippets and scenes, until we finally grasp the horror, the breadth of such abuse, in the book’s closing pages. Jude holds his secret tightly, and his friends come to accept this. When he’s crippled with pain, paralyzed on the floor, they hold him close; they take him to the doctor; they don’t ask questions about the cuts on his arms. His friends are his saviors, and he, with his understated beauty, his generosity, his humility, is also theirs.
At the end of the book’s second chapter (there are just seven), Jude remarks, “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 try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself.” Jude’s best friend, the attractive and compelling Willem, is this friend: kind, generous, forgiving. He’s Jude’s foil, the picture of health and good fortune, and the relationship between the two is what carries the book forward, propels it through the decades to its final agonizing close.
In A LITTLE LIFE, “Friendship [means] witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs.” At one point, Willem wonders, “Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? 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.” Willem and Jude’s friendship is like this: the most important relationship in each of their lives, and one that remains sexless, but not without love.
As handsome and charming as Willem is, it’s Jude who steals the reader’s heart. Jude, who keeps his pain knotted tight inside himself, who never complains aloud, who feels, all the time, like his legs will give out—it’s Jude who’s the true hero in A LITTLE LIFE, the one who survives, who even thrives, despite the obstacles he’s faced. Jude hates himself, hates his failing body, his terrible past. He can’t enjoy sex, can’t enjoy his physical body: He sees himself as flawed, “a piece of junk.”
For this reader, Jude’s pain was the most compelling part of the book. I’ve taken my body for granted my whole life, and yet it’s brought me to countries near and far, to the tops of frozen peaks and to the shores of vast oceans. It’s folded itself into cramped buses, cabs, rickshaws, boats—all so that I could see the world. Swimming, walking, skating, climbing, hiking, skiing, rowing, biking, running: verbs have always been the vocabulary that’s defined my life, punctuated the other, more literary life I’ve also led. It took A LITTLE LIFE to teach me to treasure these things, hold them close, thank my legs and arms for taking me through another pain-free day, another day when I could forget about my body and get down to the business of living.
A LITTLE LIFE is about enduring pain. Jude’s pain was never a friend, but it was always a companion, something he could count on, something he spent his life managing. And yet even in pain, Jude eked out success: As a prominent lawyer, he spent his final years with the man he always loved. The two gardened together, created beautiful spaces for themselves, those final years together all cool, shimmery pools and frosted cocktails in the afternoons. The book ends in tragedy, but it’s so imbued with beauty that you almost don’t even notice. It’s only when you finish reading do you realize you’ve been weeping for hours, and your face and hands are stained with tears. You’ll stand, aware of how your body hurts or doesn’t hurt, and you’ll see the world anew, pain-infused and beauty-bound, a brand new place each day.