A Little Life

Originally published May 2015

Need a book you can dive into for days and not come up for air?

Go get yourself a copy of “A Little Life,” by Hanya Yanagihara. I may owe my library the cost of the book in late fees, but it was worth it.

This epic, 700+ page novel asks readers to join the inner circle of friendship that is:

Willem, an aspiring actor with nondescript past as the son of a Wyoming ranchhand, detached from any real emotion about his family, saving Hemming, his older, disabled brother;

JB, an aspiring artist, righteous about his talent and indignant of pretty much everyone else’s;

Malcom, an aspiring architect from a wealthy family, unsure of what is more important—his happiness or his father’s; and

Jude, an aspiring litigator with an absolutely horrific past, positive the only thing true about him is that he is undeserving of the one thing he craves most—love.

The young men forge a friendship lasting decades, from their college years in Boston to New York City, each looking for their own definition of success. Along the way, the cast grows—Jude’s doctor and confidant Andy, along with his surrogate/adoptive parents Harold and Julia; JB’s friend/nemesis Jackson, Willem’s revolving door of girlfriends, Malcolm’s partner and wife Sophie … and then there’s the Henry Youngs, Richard, Laurence … but ultimately, this story centers on Jude. It’s his tortured past—and I mean that literally—that is the backdrop for all that is to follow. Including a total bastard named Caleb.

For those that don’t think there’s really evil in this world, look no further than Jude and the story of his childhood—saved(?) as a newborn from a back alley by a group of monks, only to be abused physically and emotionally. And then, good God, there’s Brother Luke. One wonders if Yanagihara is serving up some sort of indictment against Catholicism with this book, for honestly, it’s hard to imagine anyone, even the strongest of souls, coming out of Jude’s experience with religious authority intact.

Which makes his relationship with Willem all that more complicated and tragic. I’ve been in similar, albeit less intense, circumstances as Willem—watching someone you love with all your heart hurt themselves, and being at a total loss as to how to stop it. I don’t think I’m giving much away by saying Jude is a cutter. And it’s really one of the first things I’ve read that comes close to helping me understand the “why” to it. But it doesn’t make it any less painful to see or to try to understand.

This isn’t a simple novel, it’s a saga. Decades long, with layered, intense, challenging relationships, and at the end, love. Just love.

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