Hanya Yanagihara's sophomore novel, A Little Life, is anything but sophomoric. It gets published this week, though I read it in the waning days of 2014, staying up in the night longer than was good for me during the busiest retail season of the year, and finishing it in one last chunk of a five hour reading session on Christmas Day. To say that I was unfit for company when I at last closed the book is to engage in the most careless of understatement.
This book simply undid me. And thus it's fitting that a book that was difficult to read is proving difficult to review. I've put it off for a couple of months now, but as I said, the pub date is drawing nigh, and it's better for me to write my review now so that I'm not unintentionally influenced by anybody else's.
You will hear two things about this book that I would argue are not exactly true. The first thing everybody (including the publisher's promotional material) says is that this is the story of four friends.* Not so much, say I. This novel is, more than anything else, a close psychological study of a man named Jude. He has three friends from college, Willem, JB, and Malcolm, whom he remains in touch with in the decades to follow, but he has a deep and abiding friendship with only Willem. He also has a close relationship with his mentor and father figure, Harold, and his doctor, Andy. The reader may get close third person narration featuring all of the characters, and random chapters of Harold's first person narration scattered in the middle, but never forget that Jude is the sun in this particular heliocentric universe.
The second thing that everybody says about this book is how beautifully written it is. Maybe now we're venturing into the realm of quibbling over semantics, but when I think "beautifully written," I think lyrical, poetic. This book is extremely well written, and Yanagihara stuns (and disturbs) the reader at every turn with her human insights and compassion and generosity. But beautifully written? Not particularly, in my opinion. Which is just as well, because to engage in lyrical prose juxtaposed against the story of Jude would seem both careless and cruel, in my opinion. Powerful and stunning, yes, but not beautiful.
In the book, we meet Jude as an adult, but it's not long before the reader comes to realize that Jude isn't like the others. He's quiet and reserved and he lacks the physical robustness with which his friends are blessed. He has no family, which is perhaps unusual but not unheard of, but more than that, he has no past. Or at least no past that his friends know. While they all sense that Jude's fragile physical condition hints at some childhood trauma, his past is essentially a tabula rasa for them. As the pages unfold, the reader comes to understand some of the childhood and adolescent horrors that Jude has survived that have left him scarred in every conceivable way: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
More than anything else, A Little Life is a love letter to Jude, avatar for all of the broken people of the world. It is a testament to friendship and to love, but also to the limitations of friendship and love. In this world, these ideals cannot save what's broken; they can only minister to it. And sometimes that has to be enough.
Despite weighing in at over 700 pages, it is not plot that comprises most of this novel's heft, but character development. With every passing chapter, I came to care more deeply for Willem, Harold, and Jude in particular, and despite having finished this book over two months ago, my heart still aches from the emotional wrenching it gave me. There are books that are hard to put down because they're just that good, and there are books that one needs to put down because they're just that difficult, and A Little Life is simultaneously both.
To say more about the plot would be a bit spoiler, so suffice it to say that we follow Jude and his friends from college to young adulthood and all the way through middle age. Jobs, careers, lovers, spouses, and other friends all flit through, but mostly it's Willem, Harold, and above all, Jude. I'm not sure I've ever encountered such a complete portrait of a fictional character as Jude. As the reader gradually learns of the horrific abuse Jude suffered as a child, nearly always at the hands of those who were charged with his welfare and protection, it was sometimes more than I could bear, but as my coworker Nancy says, the readerly exhaustion is nothing compared to what Jude himself must feel on a daily basis. There is a haunting account of grief in the last 100 pages or so that is the most superlative evocation of loss and grief that I have ever encountered. Ever.
This book is not for everybody. It's possible that it should be accompanied by trigger warnings. But for stalwart readers who value a deep, rich, and emotional experience, A Little Life will be hard to beat. It's without a doubt the best book I read in 2014 and will probably occupy that position for 2015, despite being only two months (and some change) into the year. For those of you who know me, let me put it this way: A Little Life has had greater staying power with me than any other book I've read since J K Rowling started publishing Harry Potter.
The cover on this book is pretty terrible, I think. I don't generally like photographs of real people for my book covers as a rule, especially when it's not a biography or memoir. The cover alone will turn many people off, which is a shame. Let's then forget the cover, and here are some passages that will give a flavor of the writing and the characters:
Malcolm: "He was missing, it seemed, the sense of victimization and woundedness and perpetual anger it took to be black, but he was certain he possessed the interests that would be required if he were gay."
Jude: "And this was worse, somehow, having to have Willem, always Willem, defend him. Against Malcolm and JB! At that moment, he hated all of them, but of course he was in position to hate them. THey were his friends, his first friends, and he understood that friendship was always a series of exchanges: of affections, of time, sometimes of money, always of information. And he had no money. He had nothing to give them, he had nothing to offer. He couldn't loan Willem a sweater, the way Willem let him borrow his, or repay Malcolm the hundred dollars he'd pressed upon him once, or even help JB on move-out day, as JB helped him."
Willem: "Lately, he had been wondering if codependence was such a bad thing. He took pleasure in his friendships, and it didn't hurt anyone, so who cared if it was codependent or not? And anyway, how was a friendship any more codependent than a relationship? Why was it admirable when you were twenty-seven but creepy when you were thirty-seven? Why wasn't friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn't it even better? 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, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified. "
NB: Doubleday publishes this book on March 10. I read an advance reading copy that was provided upon my request by my excellent sales rep. My aforementioned coworker, Nancy, and I both felt strongly enough about this book to make it a selection for our store's First Editions Club.
* The book was pitched to me more than once as the story of four boys from college, following their friendship a few decades into their adult lives. That's not a book I really wanted to read, thanks. People who want to read a book like that definitely would not enjoy reading this one, and people who would enjoy reading this one might not pick it up because they think it's a story they've seen countless times before. That and the cover are the two biggest marketing mistakes I've seen recently with book this monumental.