Monday, June 1, 2015

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

The only word that jumps to mind to describe this book is haunting.  The characters were so real, and at times so sad, that I cannot get them out of my head.

The book jacket describes it as a story of four college roommates who move from Boston to New York and their lives as adults.  There is Malcolm - a wealthy, eventually very successful architect who is kind and generous but seemingly indecisive and unable to live up to his parents' expectations.  JB is an artist - he is black, gay and very angry which can lead him to be mean - and though successful, at times he is dragged down by addiction and falling in with the wrong crowd.  Willem is an actor who becomes an international success despite a hard upbringing as the son of a ranch hand and his wife who have lost two children before he is born and thus have trouble bonding with Willem and his older brother who has cerebral palsy.  But the story is really about Jude - he is handsome but disabled and scarred.  Over the course of the book we, and his friends to a certain extent, learn about the horrifying childhood which lead to both these physical scars and, more devastatingly, emotional scars that he is ultimately unable to live with.

Though Jude finds love from his friends, and especially from Harold and Julia, a law professor and his wife who literally adopt him, he never feels like he deserves it.  And despite desperate pleas from those who love him, he is unable to seek help because he thinks his physical and mental afflictions are his due because of the life he lived as a child.

While Jude is the centre - Willem and Harold were probably my favourite characters.  They tried so hard and so desperately to get Jude to see himself as they saw him - smart, a talented litigator, funny, loving and deserving of love.  Their devotion, sincerity and loyalty in the face of tremendous opposition were incredible.

There are other minor characters who were notable too - Andy, an orthopedist who first meets Jude when he is a resident and who becomes his primary and only doctor, as well as his friend, and is one of the only people who has seen Jude's physical scars (and learned a bit about them).  Richard, another artist, who sells Jude an apartment but uses living in the same building as an excuse to unobtrusively watch over him.  And Lucien a crusty lawyer in private practice who woos Jude from his government job and helps him become a major success as a litigator in a top notch firm.

The book occasionally changes perspectives - from Jude, to Willem and Harold primarily, although at times to others such as JB.  It sometimes took a page or two to re-orient but I thought that just made the book more interesting.  The writing was fluid and there were parts which took me completely by surprise.  It made reading a book of over 700 pages easy and enjoyable.  I highly recommend this though warn you it might be hard to get Jude, Harold and Willem out of your head.

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