First Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

First, I have to confess that I’m a bit nervous to do this. I was basically a lit major in college so I spent hundreds of hours discussing books and meaning and symbols and on and on and on. While this may seem boring, I loved it. I remember the first time I wrote a paper about the symbolism in a story and felt like I’d hit a home run, it was awesome (it was a Women in Latin American Literature course). It was a major confidence boosting moment for me and I realized that lit analysis could be fun and that thinking through the different aspects of a story/novel/poem/article isn’t just something for academics but is something that any reader could benefit from.

Okay, enough of the boring “I miss talking and writing about literature” BS. I promise I’m not going to spend all of my blog posts from now talking about what the dripping faucet means. But I do think college changed the way I read books.

Anyway, back to the book at hand. A Little Life has 4.26 stars on Good Reads, was on the shortlist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Kirkus Prize in 2015.

I have to say, without a doubt, this is one of the best books I’ve read. Ever. I often follow best of lists and read book reviews and regularly walk through bookstores to see what’s there and somehow I completely missed this book until I had lunch with my friend (and poet) Heather Derr-Smith. I mentioned I’d just finished Fates and Furies and loved it and she recommended A Little Life. I was a bit skeptical at first, but I read all 700+ pages of it in less than two weeks while preparing for a major work conference. I often tell people my super power is sleeping runway to runway. While reading this book, I went on two trips, totaling five flights and only slept 30 minutes. That’s how good it is.

I also have to admit that I completely understand why some people may not like this book. It’s intense. It deals with topics that most people (including me) want to pretend don’t exist. Some parts are painful to read. But the writing style is beautiful. Despite the heavy subjects, I never felt like I needed a break or couldn’t go on. Quite the opposite: when it got most intense I knew I needed to keep reading to get through that section. Whenever I had to put down the book I was trying to figure out how to get a few minutes to read a few more pages.

While looking at reading lists and other reviews to write this post, I learned that the author of A Little Life is a woman. For some reason, I had thought the author was a man throughout the entire book. I haven’t quite figured out what this says about me. Every narrator in the book (that I can think of right now while sitting on my couch) is a man so maybe it just means she’s a very convincing writer.

…which leads into another point: “every narrator”…there are several. The style of this book is unlike any I remember reading. The narrator changes. Sometimes it takes a couple pages or even most of a chapter to figure out who is telling the story. It’s part of the brilliance of the book. It never is confusing enough to make it hard to follow the story as the characters remain constant but left me wondering whose perspective I was getting for several paragraphs — or even pages — a few times.

Okay okay. Enough of a lead up. What is this book about? It’s about love. Friendship. Life. Family. Inconceivable, unthinkable trauma. Illness. Death. Pain. Mortality. Trust. Respect.

A Little Life follows four friends — Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm — from being roommates in college through adulthood. It follows these friends as they confront changing friendships, life paths, families, illnesses, grief and so so much more. While moving through the book, there are flashbacks to childhood for most of the characters that give glimpses — or in some cases a lot more than glimpses — into how they become who they are. The four friends come from rocky backgrounds, stable backgrounds, rich families, working class families, no family, educated parents, immigrant parents. It’s a beautiful story about how four very different people can be randomly assigned to live together their first year of college and remain close, lifelong friends.

Jude is a wildly successful attorney, known for his fierce litigating. He is also a mathematician, a wonderful signer and pianist, an exceptional baker and chef, and a mystery. He is also a couple years younger than the other three. Willem is an actor from the western US, and a natural nurturer. He is perhaps the most solid and predictable of the four friends. JB and Malcolm both come from comfortables families in Manhattan. JB is a temperamental artist who battles addiction. Malcolm is the only one who comes from a family with two parents and a sibling at home. At the beginning of the book, Jude is living with Malcolm’s family but quickly moves out to live with Willem. These are far from the only important characters in the book, but they are the four primary characters present from the first chapter to the last.

It’s been almost four weeks since I finished A Little Life and I’m still thinking about it. The character development throughout the book made me feel like I really knew all of the characters. There are very very few people introduced in the book who are merely accessories. The beauty of the book is how it shows the importance of everyone in our lives. Seemingly insignificant comments or actions may stick with others for decades.

The book also highlights the importance of empathy and compassion as not only gifts but is a life-sustaining necessities. Someone you’ve known for twenty years may be carrying unimaginable pain. Or the opposite, someone may have had the best day of their life. I’ve recently really been struggling with this. I’m really unhappy at work and it’s becoming increasingly more challenging for me to have empathy for my colleagues, my friends, my family, etc.

A Little Life is a really great read, but be ready to feel a full, full range of emotions. In just a few pages you can go from tears to laughter to fatigue to joy. I very highly recommend this book.