A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

a bookclique pick from Vicky Waldthausen

Reading a book once doesn’t usually result in a character sticking with me, no matter how much I enjoy the story. Slowly the names fade, the descriptions become generic, and soon the characters are defined more by the plot of the book than anything else. There are anomalies, of course — characters who stay with me even though I haven’t spent time studying them: Harry Potter, Esther Green, Edna Pontellier, Offred, the Price family, and many more.

But none of these characters compare to Jude in Hanya Yanagihara’s masterpiece, A Little Life. Jude haunts me and reassures me. He makes me question the realities and adversities we must face in our lives but also provides me with answers for questions about love and being loved — about how both loving and being loved are possible even in moments when we are incapable of loving ourselves.

Yanagihara’s novel follows the lives of four young men — college friends — living in New York City over several decades: Jude, a lawyer, whose agonizing past is only revealed over the course of the novel; Willem, an aspiring actor; Malcolm, a bi-racial architect, struggling to make a name for himself at a well-known firm; and JD, an artist of Haitian decent looking to break into the New York City art scene.

At first, Yanagihara appears to do a lot with the novel — maybe too much. She addresses issues of race, class, sexuality, and mental illness. She uses her characters to make statements about passion, success, justice, and the consequences of failing to forgive. But it soon becomes clear that every word serves to address the indefatigable search for identity that the characters pursue.

Jude is the center of the novel, and Yanagihara takes us to places that allow us to live and breathe his pleasures, his worries, and his horrors. The more successful Jude becomes in his work as a lawyer, the more broken he becomes as a man, until, at moments, there is— literally — almost nothing left of him. With his identifiable limp and rare admittance of pain, Jude moves through his life in waves, at times gathering speed, and at times crashing. The scars on his body are a map of his past, and only slowly — skillfully — does Yanagihara unfold the life that haunts him. Jude finds worth in those around him but fails to see that he, too, has worth. His relationships with his friends develop and break, and Willem, ultimately, is the one who chooses not to leave his side.

A Little Life is 800 pages of beautiful, horrible, brilliant, unimaginable experience. It is about a man who believes his life is “little” when it — and he — are actually the center of the lives of those around him. There are moments that are hard to get through; this is not a novel for the faint of heart. You will need to put the book down, but also need to pick it up again. That is Yanagihara’s magic. She crafts characters that are impossible to forget.

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