Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
I heard about this novel from some of my favorite bookish people, Ann and Michael on their podcast Books on the Nightstand. After devoting an entire episode to the discussion of this book, they gave away no major plot points, but convinced me that Jude St. Francis was one of the most real characters in a work of fiction.
Hauntingly real is what I would add to that description. I finished this book last night, but Jude St. Francis is still on my mind. I imagine he will edge into my thoughts for quite some time. This novel feels more like a memoir with multiple points of view chronicling the development of one group of friends into family.
The story begins with four college roommates moving to New York City to pursue their careers. For the first 200 or so pages, you get background information on these four young men, and a better understanding of how they met, how their friendships developed, and how they view each other.
One of my favorite quotes comes from a scene where Jude introduces Willem, Malcolm, and JB to Harold, his father figure law professor. In this relationship expansion "He experienced the singular pleasure of watching people he loved fall in love with other people he loved."
And this love sticks. The friendships evolve over three decades with these characters mostly forging ahead together. However, these characters are complex. They make some bad decisions. They hurt one another. They all have regrets. And yet, they are family. They learn to accept one another for the person each is, including their flaws.
At one point, Jude makes some interesting commentary on bullies. Each of his closest friends has a different role in the dynamics of bullying. Jude is the victim, but he recognizes that amongst his friends there is a bully, an onlooker, and a defender. And while these characters do mature, each one remains true to his appointed dynamic.
The narration does shift from different points of view - a style that is sometimes confusing. On more than one occasion, I would skim the text to figure out who was narrating and then go back to reread for better context.
Jude, the character with a dark past, is the central and tragic protagonist. If stories of abuse upset you, then you will want to avoid this novel. Jude endures the unendurable.
There were moments when I had to put this book down. A few times I had to walk away because the abuse was so horrific. Other times, however, I was upset and alarmed by Jude's actions or inactions.
Almost in anticipation of readers disliking or misinterpreting some of Jude’s qualities and actions, Yanagihara regularly gives us access into Jude’s thoughts. At one point he thinks, "It was impossible to explain to the healthy the logic of the sick, and he didn't have the energy to try."
Whenever Jude said or did something that particularly broke my heart, I remembered this glimpse into his world. Who was I to judge his decisions? And then I would have to remind myself that Jude is fictional.
This novel that reads like a memoir is a cathartic event. An experience. I cried several times throughout and scared the crap out of My Person at the end. He hasn't seen me react to literature quite like this before.
Not everyone will want to experience this story. For the amount of time that I have spent and will spend contemplating the lives of these characters, their decisions, their struggles, their expressions of love for one another, I am grateful. The message of compassion alone made reading this disturbingly haunting story worthwhile for me.