Book Club: Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life

A novel that reminds you to stay rooted in the present

The first time I read A Little Life was the summer before I entered my senior year of high school. While its length was slightly daunting, with 720 pages and too small a font for my liking, I found myself being continuously drawn to the novel because of its ability to transport me into a world that felt very much like real life.

I was fascinated by its characterization of the lives of its protagonists, and the ease at which I was able to develop deep-rooted attachments to them.

It would not be until three summers after my first encounter with the novel, however, that I would truly appreciate the novel for what it is: a raw, devastatingly beautiful and, at times, incomprehensibly disturbing depiction of life.

As a naïve 16-year-old, this novel introduced me to experiences that I found unrelatable. As much as I felt attached to each character, I was unable to empathize with them as they navigated their way through relationships, past demons, mental illness, self-acceptance, and drug abuse. Recently re-reading this novel has allowed me to reflect on the experiences of the characters in relation to my own life and the lives of those around me.

A Little Life chronicles the lives of four friends who, upon graduating from a prestigious college in Massachusetts, move to New York to pursue their respective professions. Their group is comprised of JB, an unapologetically outspoken artist; Malcom, a successful architect who is dissatisfied, despite working at a renowned firm; Willem, a kind and good-looking actor; and Jude, a mysteriously reserved and intelligent litigator.

The storyline focuses on their friendship in relation to Jude, who serves as the glue that holds the group together. The novel details the tragedy resulting from Jude’s childhood and the trauma that he struggles to overcome as he gets older. His unspeakable and horrific experiences will leave any reader asking how someone so good can endure so much suffering.

My biggest takeaway from A Little Life is simple: life is what you make it. The characters in this book — particularly Jude  — encounter many devastating experiences, and yet, they continue to push forward. The journey is far from easy, but their choice to rely on their friendship, and their ambition to further themselves from their pasts, makes it a little less distressing.

This lesson has become increasingly apparent to me as I navigate my way through my own life. As I encounter various challenges — although on a lesser degree than the characters in this novel — the presence of, and support from my friends and family has been crucial in helping me overcome them.

A Little Life is not a novel about happy endings because life isn’t all about happy endings. It’s a novel that details the harsh complexities of life and the important role that friendship can play in making them easier to withstand.

As such, it serves as a reminder that as difficult as life gets, it’s important to remember that you are not alone. Your friends, family, mentors, and other people in your life are a lot stronger than you think, and can provide you with the support you might not have thought you needed in the first place.

A Little Life reminds us to be in the moment and appreciate the good things while they last. I feel like I’m always in such a rush to grow up and make memories in the next stages of my life that I’m often missing out on the most important things in front of me.

This novel encourages me to be conscious of my life in the present as I move forward, one step at a time.

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