I belong to a neighborhood book club; we’ve been meeting for nearly eight years now. Our first selection of 2016 was A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Our choices are all over the place — we’ve read everything from Twilight to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks — but this was one of the first books we’ve read so soon after it was published.
Usually I’m a quick reader but it took me a very long time to get through A Little Life, which is a lengthy novel spanning 50 years of friendship shared by four college roommates. It’s the most beautiful book about friendship and loyalty and love I think I’ve ever read, but it’s easily the most brutal book I’ve ever come across in a very long time. I knew by about page 50 that Jude was going to break my heart; every day I was dreading reading more about him and learning more about his horrific past. Yanagihara said in a recent interview that her hope was that people understood sometimes life doesn’t get better, but that doesn’t mean life is not worth living. (She also said she hoped it would sell 5,000 copies. It went on to become a finalist for a National Book Award.)
This wasn’t the first book I’ve read in which the protagonist’s life does not get better. Our book club read The Kitchen House a while ago, and the general consensus was that the book literally should have had the subtitle It Just Gets Worse. I’ve read Khaled Hosseini’s brilliant novels about Afghanistan, but the one that sticks with me the most is A Thousand Splendid Suns, in which an illegitimate child grows up to be an abused wife who cannot have any children of her own. She is forced to watch her husband take a new wife, and inexplicably falls in love with the new wife’s baby. When she finally snaps and kills her husband after years of enduring humiliation and unimaginable pain, she’s sentenced to death. As she’s contemplating her life while facing a firing squad (it’s just as pitiful than Jude’s, in my honest opinion), she finds herself thankful that she was able to love and she was eventually loved in return, and she couldn’t ask for more than that. I never fail to tear up just thinking about that. (War and Peace, to provide more of a comparison, is among other things a struggle to find meaning in a difficult life, as if discovering that meaning–religion, money, social status, glory from the battlefield, marriage and children, lack of freedom resulting from capture by the enemy–will in and of itself make life worthwhile.
In A Little Life, Jude struggles with a horrific childhood that he can’t seem to overcome or really even talk about, despite the love and support of close friends. He goes on to become a successful lawyer (all the friends become renowned in their respectful fields) and eventually is able to enter a loving relationship with his best friend Willem. After that happened there was a good 200 pages of the book left and I was so tempted to quit right there and be content with the two of them riding off into the sunset together.
The worst part wasn’t finally learning what had happened to Jude when he was a child. It wasn’t him losing his legs, or his eventual suicide. It was the sudden death of Willem–Jude’s rock and lifelong friend–in a car crash that had me bawling and doing my worst ugly cry since the ending of A Thousand Splendid Suns. I was so angry at the author, at giving Jude happiness and then snatching it away, at leaving one friend at the end of the book mourning the deaths of the other three at way too young an age. I couldn’t read anything else for a while afterward.
I guess I could be more thankful that my boring life (tentative Online Offal memoir title, don’t steal) isn’t as tragic, but I can’t help thinking about those whose lives are just like those characters in the books I’ve read, and trying to deal with resulting melancholy.