Publication Date: 10 March 2015
Genre: Contemporary Literary Fiction
Trigger Warnings: Self-harm and physical and sexual abuse.
Spoiler Warning: I tried not to include spoilers but some people may consider some of what I say to be spoilers.
When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome 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cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity.
Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.
A Little Life is an impactful and heartbreaking book. It is primarily character-driven and does not adhere to a strict plot. It focuses on the lives of four friends who meet in college and remain friends throughout the rest of their lives. While it is about these four friends, most of the story is centred around Jude, who eventually becomes a successful lawyer, but inside is broken because of his difficult childhood. His best friend, Willem, stays by his side as they navigate through life, but it is only the reader who fully understands what happened to Jude to make him a man still troubled and coping from what he once endured.
“…things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”
This book is very difficult to read, both because it is depressing and because it is very long. I think it took me several weeks to read. It also took me about 150 pages in to become fully invested in the story, and by then I had already been reading for a week. I absolutely loved the middle of the book; however, I felt that the last 200 pages took an unbelievable and repetitive turn. So it was hard for me to rate this book, and even though I rant a lot in this review, I did like a lot of things about it.
It takes a while for the readers to understand what the plot is and whose character we were focused on. I knew essentially nothing about the plot before I read it – and hadn’t read any reviews – so my view on the book was very different to what actually happens. The first paragraph in the synopsis is about what the first 100 or so pages are about: the friendship between four friends. But the rest of the book is mainly about Jude. So it made me question what the point was of that first part and because the book took me a while to read, it felt like it was from another book entirely.
The main characters were very fleshed out and as a reader you really get to learn everything about them. Jude was a very complex character and I felt very sorry for him for most of the book. Willem was my favourite character in the beginning, but by the end I started to dislike him. I did not agree with a few of his decisions. As for JB and Malcom, I didn’t really care for them so much. They were good friends to Jude (debatable at times), and as the story went on, I just wanted to know more about Jude. Whenever it was their point-of-view, which happened rarely, I wondered whether it was even very necessary. And of course, I loved Harold, Julia, Andy, Ana and anyone else who helped Jude. All the other characters were horrible people and I obviously hated them.
The story made me feel disgusted, mad, sad and physically sick. Well, I never threw up or anything like that, but the descriptions of the cutting made me want to constantly look away from the page. I rarely read about cutting in books and this book kind of just thrust me into the reality of what self-harm is, as I’d never really knew much about it. This, of course, made me feel desperately sorry for Jude and I also wanted him to just stop doing it, but I knew it wasn’t that easy. Especially during the last week of reading it, I actually felt depressed, like it caused a depression within me. Now that I have finished reading it I have realised why I was feeling a little melancholy last week…
What happens to Jude is very heartbreaking and he is definitely the character who has been through the worst from any book I have ever read. Even though some of the things that happen to him seem like a bit much and like the author is thinking of the worst thing imaginable, there was a clear connection between victims and trauma that worked very well. Jude is supposed to be a character who never gets better, and even though many good things happen to him, it is because of his past that makes him forever traumatised. This aspect of the book definitely worked and showed just how terrible abusers are.
I liked Yanagihara’s writing. It followed the usual constraints of literary writing, as it was well done and flowed in a unique way. One thing that frustrated me about the structure was how the point-of-views were written. There would be no indication of who was speaking whatsoever. The reader would have to make a guess about who it was because not even the narrator wrote who was being focused on. Say Jude was the person who was narrating, his name would never be referred to – it would always just be ‘he’. This was very confusing for me in the beginning because I did not know the characters well enough and I had to ask myself who was that character who had whatever happen to them. Something else on the structure that struck me as odd was the lack of history, as I never knew what year it was. After reading a few other reviews, I’ve come to the conclusion that the lack of history was more of a technique to heighten the events of Jude’s life.
During the last 200 pages, there were several times where I wanted to throw the book out of the window.
One example is (now this is only for people who have read the book, but is not a spoiler) was when Jude hallucinates someone attacking him. If that had been real, something bad would have seriously happened to my copy of the book.
By the end of the book, literally in the last twenty pages, I was feeling things again and cried for the first time in a while whilst reading a book. I was very touched by the ending and even though I wanted JUSTICE for Jude, I was finally happy (and sad, because I was crying). I realised that this was a great book and had so many fantastic and surreal elements to it.
Overall, this was an amazing book. It kept me entertained for three long weeks. I would recommend this book only to those who can handle it and I would not suggest anyone under the age of 18 reading it.
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