Book Review: A Little Life

A Little Life
Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life is so affecting it drove me mad, consumed me inside out, and shook me to the core. This is not the kind of book you rush to finish. It's something to be relished. Given that's the case, I am surprised it's already two years since the book came out (it was published on March 10, 2015), and even more surprised by the fact that I have read it thrice since then. At its heart it's a story that celebrates friendship, but one that's very apolitical so much so that it might very well be a fairy tale. For me personally though, it's perhaps one of those rare books that changed my life, one that made me fall in love with life despite turning me into an inconsolable, sobbing mess of myself every time I read it, and last but not least, one that made me fall in love with the city that's New York. Here are some excerpts that I have loved revisiting over the years -
"Don't you think you guys should stop clinging to one another and get serious about adulthood?"
But how was one to be an adult? Was couplehood truly the only option?
"And what if this is how I want to live?"
"Well, then, that's fine," said Harold. 
Lately, he had been wondering if codependence was such a bad thing. He took pleasure in his friendships, and it didn't hurt anyone, so who cared if it was codependent or not? And anyway, how was a friendship any more codependent than a relationship? Why was it admirable when you were twenty-seven but creepy when you were thirty-seven? Why wasn't friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn't it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified. Friendship was witnessing another's slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person's most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.
***
SETH: But don't you understand Amy? You're wrong. Relationships never provide you with everything. They provide you with some things. You take all the things you want from a person - sexual chemistry, let's say, or good conversation, or financial support, or intellectual compatibility, or niceness or loyalty - and you get to pick three of those things. Three - that's it. Maybe four, if you're very lucky. The rest you have to look for elsewhere. It's only in the movies that you find someone who gives you all of those things. But this isn't the movies. In the real world, you have to identify which three qualities you want to spend the rest of your life with, and then you look for those qualities in another person. That's real life. 
At the time, he [Willem] hadn't believed these words, because at the time, everything really did seem possible: he was twenty-three, and everyone was young and attractive and smart and glamorous. Everyone thought they would be friends for decades, forever. But for most people, of course, that hadn't happened. As you got older, you realized that the qualities you valued in the people you slept with or dated weren't necessarily the ones you wanted to live with, or be with, or plod through your days with. If you were smart, and if you were lucky, you learned this and accepted this. You figured out what was most important to you and you looked for it, and you learned to be realistic… And he? He had chosen friendship. Conversation. Kindness. Intelligence… 
Now, though, as an almost-forty-eight-year-old, he saw people's relationships as reflections of their keenest yet most inarticulate desires, theirs hopes and insecurities taking shape physically, in the form of another person… He now viewed a successful relationship as one in which both people had recognized the best of what the other person had to offer and had chosen it value it as well.
***
Their relationship [Willem and Jude's] was, he felt, singular but workable: he didn't want to be taught otherwise. He sometimes wondered if it was simple lack of creativity-his and Jude's-that had made them both think that their relationship had to include sex at all. But it had seemed, then, the only way to express a deeper level of feeling. The word "friend" was so vague, so undescriptive and unsatisfying could he use the same term to describe what Jude was to him that he used for India or the Henry Youngs? And so they had chosen another, more familiar form of relationship, one that hadn't worked. But now they were inventing their own type of relationship, one that wasn't officially recognized by history or immortalized in poetry or song, but which felt truer and less constraining.
***
Of all of them, only Jude had secrets, real secrets, while Willem had in the past been frustrated by what had seemed his unwillingness to reveal them, he had never felt that they weren't close because of that; it had never impaired his ability to love him. It had been a difficult lesson for him to accept, this idea that he would never fully possess Jude, that he would love someone who would remain unknowable and inaccessible to him in fundamental ways.
***
That night, they lie awake. For as long as he had known Willem, he has always had the same feeling the day before he leaves, when even as he speaks to Willem he is already anticipating how much he'll miss him when he's gone. Now that the are actually, physically together, that feeling has, curiously, intensified; now he is so used to Willem's presence that his absence feels more profound, more debilitating.

Comments