When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.
(Note: This is more of a rant and contains spoilers.)
WTF did I just read?!!!! The only emotion I was left with by the end of the book was anger, because this book could have been so much more if it had used less pages and the author had resisted piling on every misery-as-a-result-of-abusive-childhood onto one single person. The mildest analogy (for the lack of a better word) I can make – Take all the victims in all the seasons of Law and Order SVU, heap all their traumas one over the other, and dump them over one person – and you get Jude St. Francis.
And no, I don’t think it is unbelievable that someone can have such a terrible childhood. That is not even my main issue with the book. My issue is that everything else surrounding it was so unbelievable – For someone who has seen such horrors, who was abandoned as a baby, raised in a monastery and abused over and over again, by hundreds of men, both physically and sexually – he seems to have had an incredibly easy transition into a successful academic and professional life. He easily makes friends, co-exists with roommates, and wins court cases, cooks amazing food, is a wonderful pianist and mathematician and loved by his peers and feared by anyone who faces off against him in court.
And for all the talk about friendship, none of his friends are forceful about him getting counselling, and just let his self-harm continue through decades. He has a large group of friends, the sorts who take care of him or clean his apartment when he is bed-ridden after his latest hospital visit. But no one, no one puts their foot down to have him committed to a psychiatric facility or rehab. Just because they are scared Jude will cut ties with them.
In a few ways, this book was brilliant – possibly the most horrifyingly vivid close-up of what it is to live through such a trauma, and the self-loathing that stays with you. This was probably the first book I read which dealt with adult adoption and I loved how the author conveyed the feeling of constant doubt and insecurity of Jude with respect to the entire transition to being someone’s son – by law – at the age of thirty. Especially someone like Jude, who constantly feels he isn’t worth that privilege and that whatever is happening is too good to be true. I loved Harold and enjoyed the chapters with his first-person narration. I wish we could have heard more from his wife Julia too. It is just weird she didn’t have much of a voice considering both Harold and Julia adopt Jude. Then again, this book doesn’t really have any prominent female characters.
The extent to which Williem goes to make Jude a part of his life was incredibly heart-warming, but I honestly preferred Jude and Williem as friends than lovers. I mean, what is the opposite term for being queer-baited? Because, that’s how I felt. It was touching to see the Williem’s love for Jude as a friend, and there was no indication he was homosexual or bisexual. So, I didn’t understand why the author felt the need to change “legitimize” it that way. It felt like, suddenly the author thought it would be unusual to show Williem devoting his entire personal life caring for Jude as a friend, so she went ahead and made it a romantic relationship. I honestly didn’t see it coming, because prior to that, the author seemed so secure in showing a selfless friendship. But then she decided, “Okay, so Jude and Williem are practically cohabiting, it is so weird to have two middle-aged guys living together, so let me change their equation to something more..”
I am so divided over this. I loved Jude and Williem and yet, was just very unconvinced with some aspects of how their relationship progressed. (This is a general observation about the book too. While I loved that there was LGBT representation, I was not entirely sure it was done well.) Williem and Jude have intimacy issues and later Jude admits he hates having sex, so with Jude’s permission, Williem has sex with other …. Women. Like.. what?! There is a moment in the book when someone asks (or mentions?) him about being in love with a man and he replies that he is not in love with a guy; he is in love with Jude. Soo, does the author want to imply that for Williem, being with Jude is all that mattered? It really wasn’t about the gender? I guess the author’s intention was to state that sometimes the society’s expectation to label everything isn’t always met and maybe that’s why Williem doesn’t even explicitly admit he is a bisexual. But, I just felt that this wasn’t conveyed well and a lot was left vague. Heck, with the conversations always being about “straight or gay?”, I felt there was a bit of bi-erasure.
The synopsis was so misleading!!! It wasn’t about four friends at all. It was all about Jude, everything was about him. JB and Malcolm fade away after a couple of hundred pages and I almost wanted to DNF it at that point. I went into this book thinking it was about four friends and though Jude might get more prominent page-time, we are going to get character-arcs for JB and Malcolm too. But I was sooo off-the-mark. What irked me is how even when some other character got their “moment” in the book, it too turned out be somehow all about “how would Jude feel?” So, after JB some cruel remarks against Jude during his drug addiction phase, he is immediately boycotted by Williem and Jude for a major part of the book. Oh well, his fate is no different than the two dozen names of Jude’s friends who keep popping up. And there are a lot of friends. All of whom adore Jude and never lose their patience with him. I am not sure what is about Jude which inspires such loyalty though. I mean, he never really confides about his past with them though they keep asking him. Apart from his work, he doesn’t do anything else to have fun and he being a litigator sets him apart from the artistic crowd of Malcolm, Willem or Malcolm. So, what does he even talk with the others? We never get a sense of what kind of a person Jude is beyond his past.
It felt like by the end of it even the author was tired, because all the beautiful prose that held my attention through most of the first half, turned weary and it was just hard for me to plough through the last couple of hundred pages. My patience for all the excessive details (over JB’s art, Malcolm’s architecture, Jude’s injuries and Williem’s movies) was wearing thin.
All of it ends with the most lazy and predictable plot twist (if you can call it that) ever. I am not even sure why I just didn’t ditch the book. Maybe it is because I have been looking forward to reading it for over a year. Maybe I just thought the ending will be more hopeful for Jude. But, none of that happens. I have read books dealing with these issues (though not so many in the same book and dealt by the same character), and have liked a lot of those books. My problem with A Little Life was that there is no ebb and flow to the story. It is just incredibly one-note – on one side we have Jude who goes through every horrific experience possible and on the other hand we have him and all his friends being super-successful in their fields with lots of wealth (world-famous artist, world-famous architect, world-famous actor and so on). While the entire book could have really used an editor, I also question the need for a lot of the social gatherings that happen in the book. Some of them just don’t serve any purpose and I just found it so unrealistic that around two dozen of their common friends keep in touch so frequently through the years. All of them land up in the same city from different places and when they don’t, Williem or Jude fly over to whichever part of the world they are and meet them – and again, why do we need such details every time they meet friend X or friend Y for dinner? I do applaud one thing though – the representation of LGBT, ethnicity, and the differently-abled in the background cast of characters (well okay, there were times I went “tokenism” in my head, but I am willing to shrug it off) .
Hanya Yanagihara can write, and write brilliantly. This book could have been brilliant too. If only there wasn’t all that gratuitousness floating around.