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Thursday, October 5, 2017

Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

BOOK review
Started on: 27 June 2017
Finished on: 18 September 2017

Title : A Little Life
Author : Hanya Yanagihara
Publisher : Doubleday
Pages : 720 pages / 736 pages (e-book)
Year of Publication : 2015
Price : Rp168,000 (

Rating: 4.5/5
"But what was happiness but an extravagance, an impossible state to maintain, partly because it was so difficult to articulate? He couldn't remember being a child and being able to define happiness: there was only misery, or fear, and the absence of misery or fear, and the latter state was all he needed or wanted."
This book starts with four friends: Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm, who each has their own ambitions in life. Willem is the handsome one whose dream is to be an actor; JB is a painter who's waiting for the world to acknowledge his works; Malcolm is an unsatisfied architect at a popular form; while Jude is the brilliant one with a limp, yet no one knows the real reason behind his injured leg. No one dares to ask Jude about his past and they seem to be treading on thin ice around him. But as the years go by, Willem and other people who remained close to Jude finally discovered the true story behind Jude's life.

"He will be reminded of how trapped he is, trapped in a body he hates, with a past he hates, and how he will never be able to change either."
By midlife, Jude is seen as an amazing litigator on the outside and is someone whose presence intimidate others. However, at the same time he's a broken man deep down inside with scars that seems to be irreparable. When everyone else was able to see what a brilliant man he is, Jude can also see his flaws and brokenness. As the story unfolds, his friends will finally be able to see Jude for who he really is and what his past has done to him. They will realize that no matter what they do, they cannot save Jude from himself.
"Life would happen to him, and he would have to try to answer it, just like the rest of them. They all—Malcolm with his houses, Willem with his girlfriends, JB with his paints, he with his razorssought comfort, something that was theirs alone, something to hold off the terrifying largeness, the impossibility, of the world, of the relentlessness of its minutes, its hours, its days."
image source: here. edited by me.
"Second, he would try—as Brother Luke had once asked him—to show a little life, a little enthusiasm."
When I finally reached the end of this book, I was both relieved and was left with so many emotions I needed to process. I went into this book not knowing anything about the plot; I just heard a lot of people really enjoyed it and I was intrigued. The start of the book really confused me because I didn't know where the story's heading. But once the story started unfolding itself, I soon became so invested in the characters and was eager to pick up the book again whenever I have the time. And as I read through this book, the thing I said in my mind the most was: "Now I understand why the face on the cover looks so miserable. That face and cover represents the book well."

In this review I will not retell the plot because it's definitely too complex and I'm also trying my best not to spoil anything for those who haven't got the chance to read this book yet. At the start of this book, the author introduced us to a group of friends: Jude St. Francis, Willem Ragnarsson, JB Marion, and Malcolm Irvine. Well, I thought this would be a beautiful story about a beautiful friendship—which at some parts it is precisely that, but this book is a lot more complicated than what I was expecting. After the first few chapters, the story started focusing on Jude's character—who since the very beginning is always the most mysterious one out of the bunch. The author throws in some vague hints about Jude and me as a reader was constantly guessing what's wrong with him. And it turns out I was completely wrong with my guesses. As a person who's had a pretty well-sheltered life, I could never imagine someone had to go through what Jude experienced as a child. And reading about it as the author slowly unfolds the mystery is quite an excruciating journey. We follow these characters for quite some time, from their twenties up until their fifties: From the days when they struggled with their career until they finally achieved what they dreamed of.

Throughout those years, they all went through the ups and downs of life. There are several moments in this book that made me teared up. Most of them are the times when Jude finally got the happiness that he deserved—after all the misery that he suffered. I think at some point in this book I was hoping things would gradually get better. I was craving for more happy and heartwarming moments in this book. But this book didn't give me what I wanted. The author decided to torture the reader with even more sorrow for the characters to bear. Of course, I won't spoil the ending for those of you who haven't read it yet. I just want you to be prepared for an agonizing experience if you decide to pick this book up.

"Was it better to trust or better to be wary? Could you have a real friendship if some part of you was always expecting betrayal?"
Since we followed the characters for around thirty years, I can't help feeling emotionally attached and became especially fond to some of them. My favorite characters in this book has to be Harold Stein and Andy Contractor. Their presence and dialogue is like a breath of fresh air amidst all the sadness and frustration. Harold was Jude's law professor and they maintained their friendship even after Jude graduated. Harold and his wife, Julia, took care of Jude as if he's their own child—especially because Harold's son died at a young age. He's a very affectionate person and his narrative successfully made me cry about three times throughout this book. Sometimes I'm also sad for him, because I don't think Harold is appreciated enough for everything that he did for Jude :'(
"And a few days later, he got a  reply, also in the form of a real letter, which he would keep for the rest of his life.
"Dear Jude," Harold wrote, "thank you for your beautiful (if unnecessary) note. I appreciate everything in it. You're right; that mug means a lot to me. But you mean more. So please stop torturing yourself.
"If I were a different kind of person, I might say that this whole incident is a metaphor for life in general: things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.
"Actually—maybe I am that kind of person after all.
"Love, Harold.""
"My sweetheart," Harold says again, and he wants him to stop. "My baby." And he cries and cries, cries for everything he has been, for everything he might have been, for every old hurt, for every old happiness, cries for the shame and joy of finally getting to be a child, with all of a child's whims and wants and insecurities, for the privilege of behaving badly and being forgiven, for the luxury of tenderness, of fondnesses, of being served a meal and being made to eat it, for the ability, at last, at last, of believing a parent's reassurances, of believing that to someone he is special despite all his mistakes and hatefulness, because of all his mistakes and hatefulness."
Andy Contractor is Jude's doctor who's got the privilege to witness Jude's body when everyone else is not allowed to do so. He's the one who patiently took care of Jude for many years even though this one patient always misbehave and ignored Andy's advice. Andy's dialogue are the ones that managed to make me laugh in this dark and traumatizing book. I think Andy would have the biggest guilt out of all the characters involved in Jude's life. Because he's the one who knew about everything long before the others figured it out; but somehow over the years he's unable to do anything to fix it. I can totally sympathize with his desperation considering he's already done everything he could do for Jude, yet his efforts were in vain.

And let's talk a little bit about our main character, Jude St. Francis. He's definitely not my favorite character from this book, because there's just so many things about him that frustrates me; but he's definitely a fictional character that I will always remember. The one thing that's ironic about Jude is how everyone else around him sees him as an amazing and talented human being; yet when he's asked to mention good things about himself, the only thing that came to mind was: tall. Jude is a very insecure man throughout his life, and knowing his past and what he went through enable me to sympathize with him and his actions. But there's always some part of me that hoped he will get out of this hell-hole that he dug for himself so he can enjoy the rest of his life. I think it is a too-good-to-be-true scenario for this book, but I was always hopeful until the very end :')
"Every year, his own good fortunes multiplied and intensified, and he was astonished again and again by the things and generosities that were bequeathed to him, by the people who entered his life, people so different from the people he had known that they seemed to be another species altogether: How, after all, could Dr. Traylor and Willem both be named the same sort of being? How could Father Gabriel and Andy? How could Brother Luke and Harold? Did what existed in the first group also exist in the second, and if so, how had that second group chosen otherwise, how had they chosen what to become? Things had not just corrected themselves; they had reversed themselves, to an almost absurd degree. He had gone from nothing to an embarrassing bounty. He would remember, then, Harold's claim that life compensated for its losses, although sometimes it would seem like life had not just compensated for itself but had done so extravagantly, as if his very life was begging him to forgive it, as if it were piling riches upon him, smothering him in all things beautiful and wonderful and hoped-for so he wouldn't resent it, so he would allow it to keep moving him forward."
Another thing that I love from this dark story is the beautiful friendship that I mentioned before. In his younger days, Jude encountered several people who made him suffered and scarred for life. But in college he finally met people whom he can finally call his friends. Due to his hurtful past, Jude have trust issues and is always expecting his friends to do bad things to him. Yet despite all of Jude's doubts and suspicions, his closest friends never fail him. And I think through this story, it relays some sort of hope that even though there are people who  harm you; there are still people who will care about you as well. That's why I really love the quotes by Jude (above and below this paragraph) about friendship and what it meant for him. It's definitely the more heartwarming side of the story :')
"And then I went to college, and I met people who, for whatever reason, decided to be my friends, and they taught me—everything, really. They made me, and make me, into someone better than I really am. "You won't understand what I mean now, but someday you will: the only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you and try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.""
"Jude had smiled at him. "Oh, dying," he said dismissively. "We're all dying. He just knew his death would come sooner than he had planned. But that doesn't mean they weren't happy years, that it wasn't a happy life."
He had looked at Jude, then, and had felt that same sensation he sometimes did when he thought, really thought of Jude and what his life had been: a sadness, he might have called it, but it wasn't a pitying sadness; it was a larger sadness, one that seemed to encompass all the poor striving people, the billions he didn't know, all living their lives, a sadness that mingled with a wonder and awe at how hard humans everywhere tried to live, even when their days were so very difficult, even when their circumstances were so wretched. Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It's so sad, and yet we all do it. We all cling to it; we all search for something to give us solace."
Phew, it's been so long since I've written such a lengthy review. This book was the kind that is quite difficult to understand at first (at least for me), but things gradually get more and more interesting as the story unfolds itself and its mystery. Once I was invested in the characters and the story, I always found myself waiting for the time when I'll be able to pick this book up again. It's a very depressing and distressing book to read, but at the same time I was kind of addicted to it as well. I really admire the author, Hanya Yanagihara, who's able to take me on a roller-coaster ride of emotions throughout this book. When it reached the happy moments, it felt like I was soaring high; and when sadness comes around, it felt like I was plummeted to the ground and crushed. It's a beautifully-written book, indeed, but it's also a difficult one to read as well because it involves a lot of heavy topics like child & sexual abuse, domestic violence, and self-harm. If you're sensitive about these topics, please proceed with caution—because the description are quite specific and really graphic. As for me, this book has broaden my knowledge about these themes; both from the person who experienced it, as well as the people surrounding that person who wants to be the support system. However, A Little Life is a book that I probably wouldn't dare to reread in the future. I'm content with finishing it just once ;)
"But he didn't cry: his ability to not cry was his only accomplishment, the only thing he could take pride in."
"Because he deserved happiness. We aren't guaranteed it, none of us are, but he deserved it."


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