A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Doubleday, 2015; 720 pp
Reviewed by Kimberly Gibson
Lengthy literary fiction has seen a lucky wave of popularity in the past couple years with Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch taking the Pulitzer in 2013 and that year’s Man Booker going to The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. Last fall, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, clocking in at 720 pages, lost the Man Booker to Marlon James’ 688-page A Brief History of Seven Killings. Big books are back, it seems, defying sales logic and elevating publishers’ blood pressures everywhere.
There is a necessity to the length of Yanagihara’s emotional epic, which details 3 decades in the lives of 4 college friends as they pursue their artistic careers in New York City. JB is a painter, Malcolm is an architect, Willem is an actor, and Jude is a litigator. At first, one can’t help but think of the electric and unlikely dynamic of Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda, and there is something of the proud, self-made, 21st-century family in the novel, friendships that are more important than romance. There is a touching earnestness to the novel’s elevation of friendship as it celebrates “people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.” In A Little Life, we follow the friends through their initial poverty and obscurity to glowing success, and along the way, Yanagihara unravels the true trajectory of the story, which isn’t pretty.
Something is wrong with Jude, and his friends have known it for years—he’s obsessively private, his damaged legs give him paroxysms of pain, and he can’t return physical affection, yet his friends can’t pry into the secret for fear of treading too far. They agonize, “How can you help someone who won’t be helped while realizing that if you don’t try to help, then you’re not being a friend at all?” As we become engrossed in the story—and it is irresistibly engrossing—we begin to see the horrific scenes of Jude’s past abuse which prevent him from intimacy and security in the present.
One central question is whether or not Jude’s friends can save him. The poetic justice of fairy tales has taught us that love will triumph. However, as a character in the novel tells us, "Fairness is for happy people, for people who have been lucky enough to have lived a life defined more by certainties than by ambiguities,” and like real life, this novel forces us to accept that love may not be enough, that we can’t be guaranteed a happy ending.
Prospective readers should be prepared to have their emotions wrung throughout this delicate and depressing saga, which should come with plentiful trigger-warnings. But Yanagihara also manages to capture immense beauty in the claustrophobic quotidian of her characters’ inner worlds, and if you let yourself be caught up in the lives of JB, Malcolm, Willem, and Jude, you’ll find yourself missing them when you’re through.