Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Little Life: Astonishing, Unflinching

This novel is truly astonishing — easily one of the more harrowing, unflinching books I've read in a long time. Sexual violence and unimaginable cruelty are mixed into a story about loyalty, friendship, and the question of whether these truly can overcome all. The effect is that even when there are good times, you're never really comfortable — and so you turn pages frantically. You're truly invested in these characters — and not the least because you follows them for 30 years and 720 pages.

A Little Life is about four friends living in New York City, having just graduated from an elite college and now trying to make their ways in the world. One is an artist, another an architect. One a lawyer, the other an actor. These latter two Jude and Willem are the center of the story — they have a closer relationship with each other than with the other two. We see them in the opening scene renting a crappy Manhattan apartment together, an apartment that becomes a symbol of their friendship and their modest beginnings over the course of the next 30 years.

When we first meet these characters, we know something isn't quite right with Jude. He's damaged, physically and emotionally, but we don't know why. Slowly, strategically, his story is told, and you'll want to prepare yourself.

But to focus on the tough-to-read parts of this novel doesn't give a complete picture. There's hope and good times, there is love and redemption, there is art and morality, and so, so much more. And it kept surprising me — formulaic fiction, this is not. I kept thinking throughout this novel that it reminded what a novel might be like if John Irving was writing on a day his dog died (removing all his signature "preciousness") with Donna Tartt picking up story strands here and there.

I highlighted dozens of passages in this novel, a lot of them about friendship (the overarching theme of the novel), including the following, which is my favorite:
“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.”
My advice to you if you're planning to read this, and you should, because it's great: Brace yourself. Brace yourself not just to be devastated, but also to be dazzled. It's an amazing novel.


  1. I don't think I've read a bad review of this yet! I'm definitely planning to read it, even though I haven't gotten around to The People in the Trees yet!

    1. I haven't either - but I will soon.

      Hope you enjoy A Little Life. But gear up - it's quite a ride. :)

  2. ...and here is this book AGAIN! It is everywhere I look! I even had to blog about it, in my total angst about reading it.

    Read my thoughts, if you like: http://carmensbookadventure.blogspot.com/2015/03/author-spotlight-hanya-yanagihara.html

  3. I wholeheartedly agree except that I think John Irving could not, in his wildest fantasies, write anything to compare to A Little Life. But I wholeheartedly agree that this was an astonishing read, brutal, devastating, and beautiful. I was astonished that, after reading so many positive reviews (or, really, being aware of so many positive reviews, because I tried not to read too much detail before beginning it), it exceeded my expectations. That is so rare. This is one of the most remarkable books I've read in many years.

    1. Agreed on most accounts (I actually like John Irving) ... but you're right, this is a book that, even with the breathless early reviews, has lived up to the hype for most readers. I just wish more people would read it so I'd have more people to talk about it with!