First post of 2021, and I’m starting off with something a little different.
I finished A Little Life over the weekend, my last book of 2020 and my first book of 2021. It took me about a month to finish not because, at just over 800 pages, it was a challenge, but because… it was a lot. And not enough, as all good books usually are. This blog won’t turn into a book reviews blog, I promise, but rarely am I so affected by a book that I can’t stop thinking about it, so I’m writing about it. I’m even listening to the Spotify playlist that the author compiled for the book as I write this.
About a week before I actually finished it, I put the book down and didn’t come back to it. I was very close to putting the book in the freezer after one particular plot point, but I made the mistake of stopping on a Sunday night. The first thing I thought of Monday morning after a semi-sleepless night was this book, how I was so sad at what had just happened that I couldn’t keep the thoughts from bouncing inside my head like little red balls. So I have to write about it. I have to process what I just read.
If you’re precious about it, I’d stop reading now to avoid spoilers.
From the first few pages, I didn’t know what I was reading about and there a lot of names from the start. That is, in fact, my only complaint about the book: So. Many. Names. Some don’t come back or are only mentioned once or twice in passing, and some keep popping up but I don’t care enough about the character to try to keep it straight. Think One Hundred Years of Solitude but none of the names are related to each other so you don’t have many points of reference.
It wasn’t until about fifty pages in that I could keep the four main characters straight, and it took me the first section to start actively disliking Jude, the person around whom the book’s universe revolves. And yet as the book progressed and I started finding the breadcrumbs about his past and his traumas, my dislike faded, and inevitably I started rooting for him, if anything because of the people around him who loved him so much and were so invested in his wellbeing. Much like the characters themselves, the people who loved him, I found myself begging him to seek help, to talk about his traumas, to unburden the people who cared for him and just try accepting the love that was given to him.
The book is about friendship on the surface, but as you dive deeper and move through the torturous pages, you find it’s about self-love, self-loathing, pride. How those three aspects work together in a span of thirty or so years to conclude in the ultimate act of sparing your loved ones and yourself from further suffering. It’s not a love story and it does not have a happy ending – when you get to a happy part at the end of a chapter, the author warns you it won’t always be like that by crushing the present she’s just constructed. She warns you that more tragedy is coming. And I appreciate that earnest take of life itself, because you don’t know that you’re in the good days until they’re over.
That it’s a book about trauma is obvious from the first few chapters. The three seasons of trauma that Jude experiences could have been books of their own, but that would have been very predictable and sensationalist sales-bait. You may not see many plot points coming (although I successfully predicted the two main deaths), but you know there will be something horrible. You’ll only be surprised by how terrible a specific event is. But you get insult to your injury when you find out what made Jude be what he is, what he sees himself as, because you see what the trauma and the injury have done to him, what they made his life be like. By the time you find out what happened, you almost don’t care – you’re angrier at what his life has become because of it.
I loved this book, despite the can of worms it left writhing in my brain. Its home is in New York City, but it doesn’t do the annoying thing of making the city a character in itself, inserting homages that only other New Yorkers will appreciate and non-New Yorkers will want to move there to understand. The city is a setting, as it should be, and the characters go to a lot of other places as we follow their journey. They have flats in London and houses in Upstate New York – their happiness and suffering are the focal points and settings in themselves. The story is told around their grief, their happiness, their humility. It’s their lives, not their lives as New York has molded them to be lived.
I will also always appreciate a book that isn’t heavy in description – I have no idea what the characters look like aside from Jude’s eye color, Willem’s hair, JB’s body type and Malcolm’s mixed race because they are used as markers, tools to tell a specific part of the story. I know Jude comes to appreciate tailored suits and loves baking and cooking for others (a man after my own heart), and that Harold teaches him to drive; I know Willem is of Swedish decent and has sandy hair; I know JB gained weight after this meth addiction and that Malcolm struggles with his identity because he feels he doesn’t look or act Black enough. And that’s all I needed to know about them to have me invested, because what they look like wasn’t always relevant to the story.
I loved the narrative of the book. It wasn’t linear, as if the author was telling us scenes as she remembered their relevance to the main story arc, and yet it flowed. This only bothered me until the second section, after which point I started trusting the process and understood I would find out what I needed to find out when I needed to. I found this particularly inspiring because I often have issues sticking to a linear story when I write, getting a bit boxed in by my own pressure to tell the story sequentially while dropping breadcrumbs to the ending. Of course, the story does need to have some structure, but that’s where technique comes in, something this author showed me.
I’m at my most inspired after reading a great new book, and this time is no different. After I get over it, that is. I need to mourn this book and the characters; I have to mourn the feeling that I will never again be able to read this book for the first time.