Let us talk about A Little Life by Hanaya Yanagihara and why I think you will become a better person reading it. It is a beautiful example of how art brings us closer together by showing us the world through someone else’s eyes.
The story takes us through the life and struggles of 4 men who become friends in college and after that all move to New York to pursue their respective careers and life goals. The book is narrated from the point of view of all of the main characters in alternating chapters – Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude. *
It is worth it!
I read this book about two years ago and it still is one of the most moving stories I have come across. Every time I recommend it to someone I feel like defending it a little bit. Some people are intimidated by the sheer length of it and some by the promise of a painful story. Take my experience and short review as encouragement to face both of these challenges – it is worth it!
Firstly I want to address the length of it. I believe that the 720 small print pages (paperback copy) give time and space to truly develop and build the characters. So often writers use a lot of shorthand and stereotypes to get as quickly as possible to the juicy action bits. This can make it difficult to really feel for the characters because you didn’t have time to start caring for them. In the case of A Little Life, the writer took her time to flesh out the characters and as the reader, I was rewarded greatly with 4 interesting people to get to know and live with. And – as in real life- the personal development arch doesn’t always move forwards and upwards. There is development in career, love life, personality but as well setbacks, challenges and struggles.
The dialogue reminded me of the talks I have had with my own friends – not always perfectly timed, not always brutally honested or spelled out in the most ridiculous detail
Because it is so truthful and removed from the cliches it manages to explore deeply the friendship dynamic of the male group. Yanagihara didn’t make it appear any more dramatic than needed but also didn’t stop at the superficial. Instead, she delivered an honest description of male friendship – or any friendship for that matter. The dialogue reminded me of the talks I have had with my own friends – not always perfectly timed, not always brutally honested or spelled out in the most ridiculous detail.
As the reader, you never feel talked down to. You are not mouth fed every single twist, but allowed to put the puzzle pieces together for yourself. You are allowed into the relationships and discover them on your own. The multiple perspectives allow you to pick your own side or none at all.
At any given moment I wanted to pull him out of the book, shake him, hug him and tell him that he is wonderful and worthy of all the love and admiration that he fails to recognize
Most of the story is the story of Jude, whose life has been ridden with hurt and trauma, that is not fully revealed up until the very end of the book, but your stomach is always clenched in an uncomfortably because you assume to know what it might be. You are let into his thoughts and perception of the word and himself and it is irrational at times but very convincing.
For me having had experience with mental illness myself it was a very conflicting experience.
On the one side, I was so angry and irritated how faulty his own view of himself and his self-worth was. At any given moment I wanted to pull him out of the book, shake him, hug him and tell him that he is wonderful and worthy of all the love and admiration that he fails to recognize.
On the other hand, he made so much sense to me. You can end up in negative thought cycles and not find a way out so easily when your own thoughts can’t be fully trusted.
And even though I did find myself suffering with and crying for Jude it didn’t deepen my own pain. Rather the contrary – it made me more aware. More aware of the nonsense of my own irrational thoughts and more sensitive to the possible struggles of the people around me. I much more carefully paid attention to the actions and reactions of friends and family in my everyday life, being more considerate of the narrative of their lives that is often hidden to me.
It is hard to hate someone once you have heard their story
Another cornerstone of the book is the theme of family. Especially how massive the influence of family and our upbringing is in our development as people. Particularly well this is shown in how JBs nurturing and loving mother gave him the confidence to pursue his chase after an artist career. Equally, she spoiled him which is why he often took advantage of the people around him, either for monetary gain or when he used them as objects for his art without their approval. Again though this aspect of JBs personality was introduced without judgment.
Throughout the book, you are introduced to the influences of the men and the results it causes in their lives and this is what allows you to develop an understanding of them. As they are for each other, you will become their friend. Sometimes angry and disappointed, but ultimately loving. As the famous quote goes – It is hard to hate someone once you have heard their story.
Allow JB, Willam, Malcolm, and Jude into your life for a little
I recommend this book to you as an antidote to the painfully superficial of our every day – the fake motivational speakers, the buzzfeed lists, the well-edited bikini instagram photos and the cynical twitter jokes.
Allow JB, Willam, Malcolm, and Jude into your life for a little and become a more empathetic and wiser person together with them.
* Description of the men from the back of the book. Let’s be real that is a great description and I choose not to come up with a different one.
If you want to read more about connecting with the world and other people through art read my previous post here.
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