At a small Massachusetts college, four men form a life-long bond. There’s kind Willem, an aspiring actor; Malcolm, who builds intricate structures out of paper; and JB, a budding painter with a somewhat abrasive personality. And at their center is Jude, a brilliant but guarded man, damaged by an unspeakable past. As the decades pass, their friendships are altered by adult successes and failures, betrayals, and unconditional loyalty.
As the narrative moves forward through the years, Yanagihara uses flashbacks to slowly, intricately pull back the layers of Jude’s personal hell. She reveals the depth and origins of his self-loathing, the hyenas that track him through even his best days, and the awful cycle in which he is trapped. I hope it is not a spoiler to say that this book deals with abuse — physical, sexual, and verbal. I bring this up because, although Yanagihara’s descriptions of abuse are not graphic, they may be triggering to readers who have experienced trauma.
A Little Life is an incredibly immersive novel that puts readers into the head of someone both physically and mentally scarred by abuse, and it is heartbreaking — both because of what Jude has gone through at the hands of others and because of his inability to trust his friends and accept their love. Because in addition to being a portrait of a broken man, this novel is about friendship, loyalty, and the family a person can build around himself. A Little Life is perhaps the most unique love story I’ve ever read.
As those who have read Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, will expect, A Little Life is brilliantly crafted. The writing is fantastic, and the structure worked really well, except for a few awkward transitions from past to present tense when a flashback caught up to the current moment. While reading, there was one narrative technique that felt odd, but by the end of the book it made total, heartbreaking sense. It just could have been executed a little better so that it didn’t seem so out of place.
At times, the sheer volume of misfortune that Jude suffers seems a bit unrealistic. How can it be that nearly every person he comes into contact with abuses him in some way? The punches just keep on coming (literally) and it’s no wonder Jude has so much trouble trusting even the people who genuinely care about him. But how much evil can a person really encounter in one life? [Edit: See comments for why I should have used the word “unfathomable” instead of “unrealistic.”]
This is a very heavy book, both figuratively and literally — it’s more than 700 pages! It covers some really heartbreaking subject matter, but it’s also a beautiful novel about love, loyalty, and brotherhood. If I were the type of person who used the phrase “tour de force,” I would use it to describe this book. (Alas, I would feel insanely pretentious if I said it earnestly.)
Bottom line: If you’re looking for a gut-wrenching read that will stick with you for months, look no further.
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