“A Little Life” is a book that almost physically hurts to read. That’s how sad it is. You need to take breaks between chapters to get up and walk around, and reading it leads to tangible side effects, like chest tightness and headaches. It’s also 800 pages long, ensuring that the end to the characters’ suffering, as well as yours, always seems just beyond reach. For a few days last April, I spent afternoons doing homework so that I would have free time to read at least a few hundred pages when I got back to my room at night. During this time, my mood was noticeably affected; I actually felt sadder during the day, reflecting on the gauntlet the main character and I had run together the night before. It’s a page-turner of the worst kind, a beach-read wrapped in barbed wire. I’d recommend it, but only to someone I really hated. The book definitely represents an achievement for its author, Hanya Yanagihara; I’m just not sure what kind.
In broad outline, the book details the life of Jude St. Francis, and to a lesser extent, the circle of friends he met in college. He goes on to a successful career as a lawyer, while never quite managing to escape the memories of the indescribably horrific (although Yanagihara does plenty of describing) abuse he suffered as a child. His self-loathing and insecurity manifest via self-harm and destructive relationships. Despite the endless 800 pages our author has to turn things around for her protagonist, redemption never really comes. If anything, the novel actually manages to be even more breathtakingly miserable than its plot summary would suggest.
The sadness of the book goes beyond a melancholy tone, or even the sheer operatic tragedy of the characters’ lives. The sadness comes from deep within the characters themselves, and our understanding of their goodness. Jude is loyal to a fault, and loves others unconditionally, even when, or especially when, they don’t deserve it. His every action is motivated by a fundamental kindness, which is presented as something completely uncomplicated and without ulterior motives. The pain he goes through, much of it self-inflicted, hurts us too because we understand what he doesn’t: that if there were every any character who was completely undeserving of their sadness, it would be him. You want to reach through the page and shake him, trying to wake him up to all the happiness that’s available to him but that he chooses to cut himself off from. Even more painful is the awareness that shaking would have no effect, and that avoiding happiness is so tied into the person his past has made of him that finding lasting joy would contradict every part of his being.
But there’s a love story submerged somewhere in the life of Jude St. Francis. It’s one of the most deeply moving stories of love I’ve ever read, partially because its inclusion is so unexpected and richly deserved, and partially because of the love it depicts. I wouldn’t want to spoil anything, but Jude finds a love that is independent of his trauma, and that reads like a love story from the middle ages, where young men described their female object of desire’s eyes as being stars for shining so brightly. Yanagihara’s talent most shines through in her depictions of this love: how two people are meant to be together simply because their souls are perfectly aligned, and not a single world exists in which they would not love each other. It’s an unapologetically swooning depiction of romance, so powerful that the whole book seems to tilt off its misery-porn axis and morph into something that’s truly beautiful.
Needless to say, the romance doesn’t last, and turns out to mostly be just a carrot that Yanagihara dangles in front of her characters before launching them back into the muck, face-first. Still, no matter what happens in the remaining pages, the love story has done something to destabilize the book. Regardless of the self-inflicted violence that occurs in the remaining scenes, there’s always the memory of the two nice people who found something both felt they didn’t deserve. It’s a cliché to describe stories that wouldn’t conventionally be called love stories as “a love story at heart,” but that’s what I’ll choose to do. The book almost ends on a note of sadness, or even worse, with one character’s suffering infecting others who had remained unblemished up to this point. But the last sentence calls us back to the beginning of the love story. I still feel tightness in my chest when I think about it. Jude has been through so much, but the way to end the story of his life is to remind us of a time when he was cherished and loved. That’s the moment that defined his life. And if he had only been born into a different life, that moment could have lasted forever.