“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.”
One of my friends on Goodreads wrote the following sentence in her review of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life: “Is there life after A Little Life?” and this pretty much sums up the way I feel after finishing this book. It’s been almost a month and I often find myself coming back to it; I keep thinking about the story and the characters that inhabit Yanagihara’s novel, feeling as if I were friends with these people and truly missing them.
It is overall a sad book and I found myself struggling with it at times because I couldn’t handle all the terrible things that happen to one of the four main characters; reading about it broke my heart on so many different levels but I fell in love with this novel and I am afraid my review won’t do it justice because it is quite difficult to discuss it without spoilering some parts of the plot.
Firstly I am going to make a premise: it is not a book for everyone. It touches on many tough topics and there are definitely trigger warnings for some readers; it deals with self-harm, physical and psychological abuse, loss of a loved one, drug abuse and depression, so I would not recommend it to someone if I weren’t to know the person really well (one of my friends has been dealing with psychological problems for the past few years and I wouldn’t recommend it to her).
Nonetheless, reading this book has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life and I feel different because of it; I feel like I went through a journey and I came out of it with a newfound appreciation for life.
The story centers around four friends living in New York City. We follow these young men and their strong friendship over several decades while they navigate life and deal with their respective careers, relationships and personal issues.
We get to read about how their friendship came to be and each character is described accurately by the author. Malcolm comes from a wealthy, African-American family and he is studying to become an architect, JB originates from Saint-Barth and he is an immensely talented and ambitious artist, Willem, the son of North-European immigrants, who dreams of being an actor, and then there’s Jude, an enigmatic character around whom the lives of his friends revolve. They don’t know much about Jude’s troubled past because he never talks about his childhood or family and he tends to hide himself from everybody, not wanting to reveal the terrible abuses he suffered before they met him in college. Jude is incredibly intelligent, he has degrees in both law and mathematics and he starts a career as a lawyer at the attorney’s office before becoming a litigator at one of New York’s most prestigious law firms. The narrative is mainly following Jude’s character, whose life has been wrecked by abuse and disability, and his friends spend years trying to help him get better.
Some people have stated that this book is about depression. There are some truths to that, but I will say it is really a book about the true meaning of friendship. We are living in an era where friendship has sometimes become synonym with utilitarianism and shallowness, so it is comforting to read about people who will support you and stand by you even when you are at your worst, like Jude is for the majority of the book.
This novel conveys other important messages, like the dual aspect of self-realization; while the book implicitly tells you that money isn’t enough when your life lacks other major things (all characters go on to become successful in their respective careers, so money isn’t a problem for them), it is also important to notice that Jude’s journey as a character tends to veer towards normality as much as possible, despite him still having to struggle with inner demons caused by the wounds of the past. One can deeply appreciate and realize too, that “…things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.” Not only is it about love, but also it is about acceptance; about accepting yourself and the people around you for who they are, not for who you want them to be.
It is a riveting, thought-provoking read and I know I will re-read it sometime in the future; Yanagihara’s writing style reminded me of Donna Tartt’s. Also, like in The Goldfinch, it feels like the characters you read about are not entirely good or evil, but they have different nuances to their personality and the same goes for people in real life, too (with a few exceptions, of course).
It is the best book I’ve read this year so far, and probably one of the best books I’ll ever read. Highly recommended to people who feel strong enough to read about tough subjects and suffering in general. I bought this novel in 2015 when it first came out but got down to read it only seven years later, so I think it’s true what they say; some books really do find you at the right time in your life, when you need them and when you are ready to experience them.
OTHER BOOKS YOU MAY LIKE: I would recommend anything by Donna Tartt, especially her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch. As only some parts of A Little Life can be included in the dark academia genre (a relatively small part of the novel takes place during college), you will definitely appreciate Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which is the dark academia book par excellence, if you enjoy the genre.
I would also recommend Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, which I reviewed here a couple of months ago, because it is a book about the beauty of male friendship as well.
A Little Life reminded me also of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood and Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides.
MOVIE ADAPTATIONS: no movie adaptions are available yet, even though I would love to see this novel turned into a limited TV series. At the same time I know it would be easy to mess this book up in the process of adapting it, so I am hopeful that someone will take care of the material in order to do the book justice. In the meantime, there has been a highly-acclaimed theatre adaptation in Dutch by Ivo van Hove which seems to be pretty accurate and faithful to the original material; it was also presented at the Edinburgh Festival earlier this year and it would be great to see it on Broadway!
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