The pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive

A Little Life
by Hanya Yanagihara

This book has consumed my life for a month. It is often sad, upsetting, shocking even, but I still wanted to dive back in as soon as I could whenever life dragged me away from it.

This is a big book, and it takes a while for its main themes to become apparent. Although I knew quite a bit before I started reading, I’m going to avoid spoilers here.

We open with four men in New York, good friends since college, now in their late 20s and trying to put their stamp on the world. Willem is an actor, making most of his money waiting tables at a high-end restaurant. JB is an artist, trying to find his subject. Malcolm is an architect, working long hours, dreaming of the day when he will have his own projects. And Jude is a lawyer at the public prosecutor’s office, not really making enough money to live in Manhattan.

“There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault. Would Willem work for year upon year at Ortolan, catching the same trains to auditions, reading again and again and again, one year maybe caterpillaring an inch or two forward, his progress so minute that it hardly counted as progress at all?”

Going backwards and forwards in time, we learn about their lives and the people important to them. They are very different men, but they share ambition and love for each other. The opening chapters are warm and inviting, hinting at darkness but delaying it for a few hundred pages. I loved getting absorbed into their world. So when the bad stuff hit, I really felt it.

I thought because I knew the main themes of this book that I was prepared for how dark it was going to get, but how could I have prepared for something so brutal, shocking and sad? I didn’t just cry, I wept through some sections. But despite the sadness, I found this book addictive and only its sheer size kept me from finishing it in a week.

“It had been a long, sunny, sleepy day, and Jude was in one of his light moods, when he was almost carefree, and even as he asked, Willem experienced a predictive melancholy at ruining such a perfect moment, one in which everything – the pink-bled sky above them and the way the knife sliced so cleanly through the vegetables beneath them – had conspired to work so well, only to have him upset it.”

The title can be interpreted in a few ways. Jude, whose story this is more than the others, is just one man in a big city in a big world. But his life story is epic. And there is a lot of wisdom here about life and dealing with its ups and downs.

Despite the difficult themes, it has gentler, warmer topics too. There is, for instance, the theme of friends being the family your choose. I have never read a book where this is quite so true. Some of the happier passages were just as moving as the sad ones.

“He took pleasure in his friendships, and it didn’t hurt anyone, so who cared if it was codependent or not?…It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound…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.”

I loved this book, but it gets really tough, so I can’t recommend it to everyone. If you don’t mind difficult subjects, then absolutely read this. It is amazing.

Published 2015 by Doubleday.

Source: Amazon.

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