Genre: Literary Fiction
For fans of: Donna Tartt, Jonathan Franzen, David Gilbert
All he needs is one answer. All he needs is to be convinced once. The proof needn’t be elegant; it need only be explicable.
This was a really intense (and very long) novel – one that I’m not sure I could have managed had I not read it as part of a group! At 720 pages, A Little Life was always bound to lull in parts so I’m glad I had the impetus of the reading group to finish each section by a specific deadline. I got through the book a lot faster and it was so interesting to see how a novel I’d seen lauded publicly fared under closer scrutiny. (Let’s just say it divided opinion…).
We don’t get the families we deserve.
You can read my initial thoughts on A Little Life here and it does indeed go on to focus on Jude (called it!). The story is beautifully woven -Yanagihara constantly jumps between flashbacks and the present but it’s pretty seamless. Essentially we see that initial friendship group – JB, Malcolm, Willem and Jude – grow up and attempt to reconcile the more idealistic aspirations of their youth with the realities of growing older and earning a living. And then there’s Jude’s constantly ongoing battle with his own personal demons always lurking on the peripherals…
But there were days of self-fulfillment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble.
The amazing thing is, Yanagihara is so subtle in the way she does this – and with the chronology hopping – that you don’t actively realise time is passing. It just happens and it’s only when you can reflect on the novel at the end that it occurs to you how much time has passed.
The intimacy between both the characters themselves and their relationship to the reader is another of the elements that makes A Little Life Man Booker-worthy. Their complex relationships and motivations, in addition to the way the core friendships evolve over the course of the novel, leave you completely endeared to Malcolm, Willem, JB and Jude. For this reason, seemingly small moments in the novel continue to stick with me – such as one grin-inducing scene in which the temperamental JB has a small falling-out with Jude and retaliates by petulantly revealing the end of a book Jude is reading despite his protestations.
The intimacy between the reader and the characters is heightened by some heavy foreshadowing. While this relationship is part of what makes A Little Life brilliant, I did find the foreshadowing a little grating at times – Yanagihara is prone to making ambiguous, somber comments about characters’ futures that leave you in no doubt they’ll run afoul of something eventually. Yet the ending will still take you completely by surprise.
If I’m honest, the writing itself didn’t particularly appeal/stand-out to me but I think the brilliance of this book lies in the plot and the core cast of characters. Over 720 pages you become really invested in the fate of these people (I’m not going to lie – this book made me tear up a LOT). At the beginning it’s a little difficult to keep track of who’s who outside of the four protagonists but once you’ve got the hang of it you really come to feel for each one of them (in spite of their flaws).
It can be quite taxing on your emotions and does feel a little bit like manipulation at times with the ordeals she makes them endure…but it’s worth it in the long run. I think it’s Yanagihara’s capacity to evoke these massive waves of empathy and emotion that has seen A Little Life shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
And then he’d eat his breakfast and leave for the day, stepping out into the world in which no-one knew him and in which he could be anyone.
But that doesn’t mean some of the characters aren’t flawed. For instance, at one point Jude gets into a very tumultuous relationship and the events that transpire seem to exist solely as a shock factor (and Caleb as a plot device) rather than possessing any literary merit. At times it can feel a little like Yanagihara is just testing how far she can push you before you stop reading the book! The entire thing is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster – one minute you’ll feel warm and fuzzy inside, marveling at acts of kindness, and the next you’ll be hugging your pillow in a fetal position…but again, that’s part of what makes it great!
I think social reading came in particularly useful for A Little Life. With all the dotting around between timelines it’s really interesting to look back at what I thought during part 1 knowing what I do now. It’s definitely not an easy read and you’ll need to keep tissues nearby but as far as I’m concerned it’s definitely worth it – even it’s just to find out what all the fuss is about! A novel that speaks to the heart, A Little Life is a must-read this year (and lugging the hardback around will give you some arm muscles too!).