As long as there have been bright young things moving to New York City to manifest their destinies, there have been books about them—a thousand stories plucked from an endless stream of strivers and dreamers. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life opens on four fresh specimens, newly graduated from a prestigious Northeastern college: There’s the gentle, handsome actor Willem, charismatic painter JB, aspiring architect Malcolm, and their group’s greatest mystery, the brainy, sphinxlike Jude. Like so many before them they scramble and hopscotch through smoke-filled loft parties and shoddy apartment shares, starter jobs, and sexual misfires—always a golden self-contained unit, even when the alliances among them shift in small ways. JB becomes the first to reach something like real grown-up success; Willem follows, while Malcolm evolves more fitfully. Jude pursues a law career, finds an ad hoc family in a kindhearted professor and his wife, and begins to reveal (to the reader, if not to his friends) more of the sealed-off history that has led him to recoil at physical contact and spend even the hottest summer days in long sleeves.
A Little Life is not a little book—at 720 pages it’s a massive, sometimes maddening read—but it is a little bit of a bait and switch: Roughly halfway through, the other characters move to the margins, and Jude’s story takes over. Yanagihara pulls back the black curtain of his childhood slowly and with great care; by the time every dark corner is illuminated, it’s devastating. But she begins to lean too hard on his tragedy and let Life’s other compelling narratives slip away. (Malcolm is especially neglected, left to drift out into the ether like a lonely astronaut.) We are told repeatedly that Jude is someone rare and precious: a gorgeous, brilliant, sensitive boy. As the story progresses, though, those qualities have to be taken on faith; his pain and self-loathing are a prison that begins to trap the reader, too, in an increasingly airless world.
It’s a shame to say that the final chapters sometimes feel like a slog when the book has so much richness in it—great big passages of beautiful prose, unforgettable characters, and shrewd insights into art and ambition and friendship and forgiveness. Flaws and all, it’s still a wonderful Life. B+
THE OPENING LINE
“The eleventh apartment had only one closet, but it did have a sliding glass door that opened onto a small balcony, from which he could see a man…”