A Little Life has been on my list for almost two years now, when it was published to immediate acclaim. Having gotten 300 pages into The Goldfinch and abandoning it due to an inability to take even the remotest interest in the plotline, I was hesitant about this one. Also, as someone who both refuses to use a Kindle and hunches over a computer all day, I was worried about what carrying an 800-page book around all day would do to my shoulders. However, at my Christmas party this year, a friend of my parents’ recommended The Nix and A Little Life. I read The Nix first—at a measly 600 pages, it was more approachable—and loved it so much, I knew I had to abide her second recommendation as well.
I finished this book two weeks ago now, and all I can say is wow. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not an excessively emotional person, but this book was an absolute rollercoaster. I found myself excessively texting friends who had read it (shout-out to Charlotte and Meghan) every time something sad happened, in hopes they’d assure me things would start to look up for the characters soon. No dice. This was, without a doubt, the saddest book I have ever read.
The book follows a group of MIT students: Jude, the enigma with a troubled past; Willem, the ‘beautiful’ one who ultimately rises to fame as an actor; JB, the fiery and polarizing artist; and Malcolm, the mild-mannered architect from a well-off family in New York. A Little Life is, in a sense, a “coming-of-age” story, but it is unique in that it takes the reader long past that, into the characters’ fifties and sixties, as they move to New York and begin to experience success in their professional and personal lives.
What many of the glowing reviews don’t tell you about A Little Life—and maybe the reviewers didn’t have the same experience that I did, but I highly doubt that—is that it is an incredibly difficult book. I am being completely serious when I say that you should not read this if you’re in a fragile emotional state. Those who are squeamish should also steer clear; I found myself skipping past graphic and heartbreaking descriptions of self-harm and sexual abuse. That being said, it is far and away the most beautiful book I have ever read. In discussing the book with a friend, we concluded that the reason it feels so tragic and affecting is Yanagihara’s expertise when it comes to character development. Each character is unique, multi-faceted, and likely somehow similar to someone you know and love; it truly feels as if you are enduring their hardships and losses along with them. Even if the book’s plot were completely dull (which—I hope I have made clear—is not the case), the beautiful prose likely would’ve kept me going to the 800th page. That said, I do think there was a point in the book [spoiler alert] where the deaths became gratuitous; things were hard and sad enough, did that have to happen to that character, too? I am not a crier (the only other book I’ve cried in is The Fault in Our Stars), but there is one scene towards the end of the book that you would have to be soulless not sob at. I truly think this is a book everyone with literary inclinations must read. I’d lend you my copy, but it’s completely tear-stained.