A Little Life is a lot of book

Hanya Yanagihara’s superb novel is more than 700 pages–that’s 32 hours and 51 minutes on audiobook. I listened to it in the car and, unusual for me, put in earphones to continue out of it. Often I sat in the driveway and in parking lots, transfixed by the story, not wanting to break away.

A Little Life is the story of four college friends who end up in New York together, ambitious, talented and struggling young men. Their group revolves around the law student Jude, whose life before college is a mystery to the others and is gradually revealed to readers as one of appalling sexual abuse and torture by adults.

To say this novel is sad is understatement. Even the happy parts–and there are many–made me cry. Reviewers have called the book “unrelenting.” That’s accurate. Jude’s fundamental refusal to believe that he deserves to be happy, and then when he finds happiness, to believe that he can ever be happy again or even once deserved it, defeats all of the genuine love he encounters and generates.

There’s a nevertheless here: this is a fully imagined world worth visiting, with people you want to know, stories you want to hear, art you want to see, villains you want to kill with slow, painful, torture. You’ll find it a hard world to leave–and hard to leave Jude, J.B., Willem and Malcolm. Perhaps, like me, you’ll be tempted to Google J.B.’s paintings at MOMA to see ‘Willem Listening to Jude,’ or go on IMDB to see Willem’s profile, or look for photos of Malcolm’s buildings.

This is the kind of book readers long for: where the world is rich and enveloping, allowing our imaginations to engage fully. We can tell that Yanagihara wrote solidly day-in and day-out for months–her focus and intensity is on the page.