A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

I used to be a person that cried a lot.  And when I say a lot, I really mean it.  I cried at the usual stuff, like sappy commercials and getting a B on a homework assignment (you know, like normal people do) and I also cried over small things like burning dinner or missing the 6:33 bus.  I cried A LOT. Going from being an all the time crier to an infrequent crier requires major changes, like ending an unhealthy relationship and a career change.  It also requires limiting exposure to things that you know will trigger crying, like greeting cards and local news (again, totally normal).

Over the last tenish years I have carefully cultivated a rock under which I can comfortably live.  Under my rock there is room for my awesome husband, my children, a lot of science fiction and fantasy books, the Simpsons, and very little else.  I allow This American Life podcasts to creep under my rock in small doses.  Sometimes I watch movies about true historical events.  When awful bits of reality invade my space – the horrors of factory farming or the Syrian refugee crises, for example – it rocks me to the core and I feel compelled to take action so that I am, if not making things significantly better, at least not actively contributing to the pain and suffering of others.

Since I know that I am… sensitive, I tend to avoid reading things that evoke feelings.  If a book can be described as “emotionally devastating,” that is a clear indication that it should not be read by me.  So, when I heard about Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, I knew right away that I would not read it.  But then I kept hearing about it again and again and eventually, although it went against my better judgement, I read it.

In case you were wondering, this book is EMOTIONALLY DEVASTATING. It is heartbreaking and tear jerking and gut wrenching and so effing sad.  It is also so beautiful and so intense and so powerful and even though I knew that it was breaking me in ways that it may take me a long time to recover from, I couldn’t put it down.

A Little Life is a story of four men and their friendship.  The first thing that I loved about this book is that the men were emotionally complex, communicative, and sensitive.  They are far from perfect, but their imperfections are multifaceted and realistic.  I was drawn to these men and I believed their relationships with one another.

One of the four friends, Jude, is very private.  The others know that he is hiding things, but they also know that what he is hiding must be so painful that his withholding is not an act of malice, but rather one of self preservation.  At first they figure that he will open up eventually and over the years as he fails to do so, they mostly just accept this about him. He has painful secrets that they wish he would share because they want to help carry his burden, but he is not able to do this and they love and respect him despite the strains that it sometimes places on their relationships.  The reader, of course, is not spared.  His secrets are shared with us and we, like his friends, are powerless to help him and it is awful. The story is beautifully written.  The pacing is artful, the characters are rich, the ways that their relationships ebb and flow over the years is both believable and compelling.  Jude’s life, however, is a horror story and I found myself wondering why I was reading it.  Why was I exposing myself to this emotionally raw account of a kid who just could not get a break, who was abused monstrously by people who just kept one-upping each other in the race to be the worst human being in the world?  And more importantly, why was I enjoying it so much?  Don’t get me wrong.  I was not titillated by this book, but I didn’t want to stop reading it either.  This was not a case of can’t-look-away or so-bad-it’s-good.  This is a genuinely beautiful novel.

As I read, I had to keep reminding myself that A Little Life is a work of fiction.  Yes, these things really do happen, but not all the time, not all to one person, not to me, not to my children, oh but god… to some children… and then I would cry all the harder and after I collected myself I would keep reading.

I don’t even know if I am recommending this book… I loved it, but it almost destroyed me.  I have done such a good job of insulating myself from the horrors of reality for so long.  Then this book, which is written so realistically, presents me with all too plausible horrors and my poor brain is not used to processing this kind of information.  It really is great, but if you can’t handle it, it’s okay to know this about yourself and maybe I should have known this about myself, because the new and improved infrequent crying me has had a bit of a set back.  Time to retreat back under my rock.


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