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Tracing the ebb and flow of friendship
If you think you’ve read the story of four friends trying to make it in New York City already, think again. Hanya Yanagihara’s transcendent second novel is much more than its plot summary suggests. A Little Life may be the best book you read this year; it certainly will be the most heartbreaking.
The Condé Nast Travel editor, who grew up in Honolulu, made her fiction debut in 2013 with the publication of The People in the Trees. She’d been working on that novel—which weighs a scientist’s dubious morals against the good his research has accomplished—“for maybe 16 years,” she says during a call to her office in New York City.
All 700-plus pages of A Little Life, on the other hand, were written in just 18 months, after five years of mental planning. “I worked on it very steadily, three hours a day Monday through Thursday and six hours a day on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. But I knew where it was going the whole way.”
That’s an advantage the reader of this often-surprising literary tour de force won’t have. As the stories of the four main characters—college roommates Willem, Jude, Malcolm and JB—unfurl over three decades, Yanagihara deftly fills in the separate pasts that have shaped their shared present.
“I was very drawn to the idea of a group of friends,” Yanagihara explains. “My very best friend, to whom the book is dedicated, has a large group of friends who I call the herd of cats. They’ve known each other since high school and college, and I’ve always admired their dynamic and how hard they work at staying friends.”
Like any friend group, the foursome faces ups and downs: romantic disappointments, career successes, drug addictions. Two go into professional careers—Jude becomes a lawyer and Malcolm, an architect—while JB and Willem pursue art and acting, respectively. But it soon becomes clear that the biggest conflict in A Little Life is Jude’s struggle with his past demons, which include abandonment and abuse. While his entire history doesn’t become clear until well into the book, readers will realize early on that it’s not something to be easily overcome—giving a story that might otherwise be essentially a domestic one serious emotional heft, as well as a sharper, more dangerous edge.
"One of the themes of the book is this hope that we all live with: that one other person can save us—and the realization that we really can’t be saved, that the idea of being saved itself is sort of a false conceit . . . "
“One of the themes of the book is this hope that we all live with: that one other person can save us—and the realization that we really can’t be saved, that the idea of being saved itself is sort of a false conceit,” Yanagihara says, citing the “limits of what any one person can do for someone else.”
The reader does indeed feel helpless at times in the face of the cruelties that Jude endured. Yanagihara fully commits to bringing readers all the way into her characters’ lives—the dark spots as well as the bright—with a visceral realism. “A friend of mine called it sort of an emotional horror story in a way, and I guess it is,” she admits. (This interviewer read one scene peeking out between her fingers, which was a first.)
Child abuse is tricky to handle in fiction, but Yanagihara seems drawn to exploring the subject, which was also an element of The People in the Trees.
“I’m interested in how people compensate for some great harm when they were young,” she explains. “One of the great concerns for fiction in general is the fundamental vulnerability of humans,” adding that children represent the most vulnerable group of all.
But while Jude’s trauma may give the book its drama, at its heart A Little Life is a study of friendship, a relationship that “can never really be codified,” says Yanagihara. “With gay marriage, we are seeing a relationship that has always existed between two men or two women get a legal name. But friendship will never have a legal definition.”
She was particularly interested in male friendship, because “men are friends in very different ways than women are friends. Socially—and not just in our society but almost every society—they’re given a much smaller emotional toolbox to work with. They’re not allowed to name, much less express, the sort of feelings that come very naturally and easily to women.” (Originally, she’d intended to have no women in A Little Life, but decided it was “too contrived-sounding” and scrapped the idea.)
Yanagihara’s grasp of the complexities of friendship is masterful and will spark recognition in any reader, male or female. You might say that this book is to friendship as The Corrections was to family.
“Although we have seen depictions of great friendships in books, I don’t think it’s something that as a society we collectively value as much as we should,” she says.
The novel is carefully structured—something Yanagihara says “was as important to me as any of the flashier elements”—into seven sections. The first four are each set five years apart, but the final three sections run together, to echo the way that the experience of time changes througout life. “As you get older—I recently turned 40—time seems to shrink and compress, and it becomes something that is lived less by these sort of big epic milestones and simply by moments,” says Yanagihara.
A Little Life takes place somewhere close to the current day, although the exact time is never specified. “I wanted the book to have a sort of fable-like quality to it,” says Yanagihara.
Fable or not, New York City—currently Yanagihara’s home base—is vibrantly depicted here, from crappy post-college apartments in Chinatown to the SoHo lofts that come with adult success. Also very New York: the way that each of the characters is driven to break from the past.
“Everyone here is sort of looking for another family . . . this idealized set of people who will understand them,” she says.
Malcolm, Willem, JB and Jude find that set of people in each other, and readers of A Little Life will feel a part of it. With this epic and moving story, Yanagihara proves that she is a literary force to be reckoned with.