Tuesday, September 01, 2015

A Little Life, A Lot of Heartache


I spent most of August reading one book - A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara. My book club chose it as our latest pick and I'll admit - I wasn't completely thrilled with this turn of events. The book is 720 pages long, and that seemed like a lot of time to set aside for a book that someone else chose for me. (We vote on our monthly selections, but still.)

Before I even started the book, it quickly became apparent that this was THE novel of the moment. Right after our book club chose it, it made the short list for the Man Booker Prize. (Coincidence? We'll never know.) Many of my friends began posting to social media about how heartbroken the book had left them. I got added to a group on Facebook created purely to provide emotional support while reading. Every mention of the book on Twitter was accompanied by two emojis - broken heart and crying face. Things were getting serious. 

And so I started reading the book. It took me about 50 pages to really get into it. At first, I was confused. Who was black? Who was white? Who was gay? Who was straight? We're in New York City, but what time period does this take place? Who are all these friends that keep stopping by? Who is important? Soon, though, I settled down and settled in. For the most part, the book follows a core group of four men, recent college graduates who have just moved to New York City. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that one of these men, Jude, is the true main character, and bit by bit we learn about his history, the life he led before he came to college and met his three dearest friends. It was a life marked by all kinds of abuse, and it's a good thing we don't get the details all at once - they're hard to take, and a huge part of why this book is so ridiculously sad. 

But for a book that delves so deeply into tragedy and sadness, there are also moments of real happiness, which creates a gorgeous and complicated testament to love and friendship and our limits as human beings. Since I finished the book, I've read a ton of interviews with Yanagihara, reviews of the book, and analyses of the characters, and I've seen it called everything from a rare view of male friendship to the Great Gay Novel to a dark fairytale. It is, of course, all these things, because a book - at least a great one - is never one thing, and this book is definitely great. I've read 27 books so far this year, and none of them has affected me as deeply or lingered as long in mind and heart as this one. 

You might notice that I'm not saying much about the actual plot of the book. There are so many twists and so much happens - the book follows the characters from their early 20s to their early 50s, which is a lot of life - and each reveal is so highly anticipated, so necessary and horrifying and such a gift, that I can't give any of them away. 

Instead, I will tell you this. I finished the last 200 or so pages of the book over the course of a few nights, alone in my house because Nathan was working late. I knew that even though things for the characters had been bad, they were soon going to get worse, so I approached each reading session with fear, trepidation, and a box of tissues. In between the hours I spent reading, I wandered through the world and went to work, but I was barely there. I couldn't stop thinking about the characters, Jude especially - they took over my life in the best way. At once point, while reading, I was so engrossed that I didn't see something very big coming. When The Thing arrived, I slammed the book shut and yelled, "No. NO. NO!" into my empty house. I finally finished the book in a two hour stretch during which I could not stop weeping - I had no idea I could produce so many tears. Maybe this is a strange sort of recommendation - "Read this book! You'll never be the same! It will break your heart into a thousand pieces!" - but you should know what you're getting into. Think of it as a doomed relationship, one you know will not end well, but will challenge you, force you to confront dark truths, and make you question everything you thought you knew about love, friendship, and loss. 

And when you're done, let me know. No matter how long it takes, I'll still be thinking about this book, and I'll always need to talk about it. 

15 comments:

  1. Your review of this book gave me heart palpitations (the good kind)! After reading it, I read a few other reviews of it and every single one mentioned sobbing throughout the book...and loving it. I added it to my ever-growing list of books to check out!

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    1. I'm so glad you liked the review and will read the book! Though I apologize in advance for the all the emotional trauma it will cause. I'm here for you!

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  2. I'll report back and demand consolation! ;) I can't think of the last time a book made my cry, and I'm oddly excited about it? Though, admittedly, it will likely take me until a bit later in fall to get to it because The new Elena Ferrante just came out (have you read her series, the Neapolitan Novels? They make me swoon.) and I also have 4 books that are coming my way from ye olde public library. It's always so nice to have fun bookish things to look forward to.

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    1. I haven't read the Neapolitan novels, but everyone has been talking about them! They're on my to-read list for sure - they sound right up my alley! And I agree about looking forward to books. My library has a feature where you can save your to-read list via your online account, and mine is currently up to almost 40 books. It makes me really happy.

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    2. I'm coming back to this post, as it was your review of the book that led me to add my name to the wait list for A Little Life at my library. And all I have to say is: I HOPE YOU'RE HAPPY NOW. I can't stop reading it (I stayed up until 2 a.m. reading in bed by headlamp, as my husband was asleep next toe me). In the times I am able to peel myself away from it, I can't stop thinking about it. And I am just bracing myself because I just *know* something terribly tragic is coming. It's all I can do not to flip to the end of the book and skim-read it to see how things end up. This book has taken over my life!

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    3. My apologies! I'm sorry for all the heartbreak to come (seriously, it is relentless) but glad you are enthralled. Please come back when you reach the end, and please forgive me! I'm still not over that book and think about it daily. <3

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    4. Well, I finished it. After reading A Little Life voraciously for a few days, I slowed down this past week and took several nights off... because woah. WOAH. It was intense and heartbreaking and beautiful. I have Mondays off work, and so I finished the last chapter sitting on a bench outside my library with snot dripping from my nose and tears streaming down my face. As I slid the book through the slot in the bookdrop, I was both relieved and sad to have finished it. I haven't read many books this year that have affected me quite this much. Thanks for the great recommendation!

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    5. I know exactly what you mean! I couldn't bring it to work with me because it was too much to handle on my break. I had to wait until I was safely home and all alone to read it. I would like to read it again one day, but not for a long, long, long time. Anyway, I'm really glad you read it and that you don't hate me for recommending it! :)

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  3. It's been a few weeks since I finished it and I still get teary when I think about it. A book I know I'll read again and again!

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    1. I think I'll need to wait a few years before reading it again, but I agree - it's definitely a book I'll come back to. I often catch myself thinking about it without realizing it, and my heart breaks all over again.

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  4. Thank you for suggesting this book! I loved it! And now for an only-slightly-off-topic question:

    How does your book club choose books, and how often do you meet? I'm in a book club that I really enjoy most of the time, but the selection process seems like it needs tweaking. Right now we just put suggestions into a box and draw them out at random and, as iTunes shuffle has taught us, true randomness doesn't feel random enough.

    Also, I'd love to read this with our group but I doubt many people would want to commit to a book that long in one month. Maybe we just have too much on our reading plates for long books...

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    1. I'm so glad you loved it! I love it too and still think about it all the time.

      Our book club meets monthly, though we gave ourselves six weeks to read A Little Life, since it was so long and it was hard to get our schedules to sync up. We take turns hosting, and the next host will email three books that she wants to read to the group. Then we rank the books/vote on them, and the book with the most votes is the one we read. It's worked out really well for us so far!

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    2. Oh, I like that system! It gives those host some leeway to pick books, but still allows the group to decide together :)

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  5. Dear Chrissy, -- I somehow came upon this post and just wanted to say how incredible it was to read someone's response to this extraordinary book that was /exactly/ my response! When you wrote about being at work and not being able to think of anything other than A Little Life, and Jude especially -- I could have written that myself. Judging from the comments here, there are many of us who felt the same way about this book. I agree completely with what you wrote about the book affecting you so deeply, and lingering in your mind and in your heart. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Hello Nick! Thank you for such a kind comment - I love hearing from people who loved A Little Life as much as I did. Six months later, I still think about this book every day. It's such a gift!

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