When people saw I was reading A Little Life, the comments came thick and fast: “I absolutely adored this book, it was my favourite that I read last year…”, “I love this book so much”, “Loved it and it destroyed me”, “…absolutely wrecked me”, “incredible book”, and so on and so forth. So, you can image how much I expected this book to affect me emotionally, how deep and intense of a read I was anticipating…
From the inside cover:
When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their centre of gravity.
Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.
17 days, 720 pages later, I finally understand all the comments, however, I’m not in agreement with them. If I were to describe this novel in one word, it would be “depressing” – I’ve read a good few books that could be described in such a way but where they differ from this one is that other words can also be attached to them, words such as “hope” and “determination.” A Little Life is just depressing. ‘A Little Life of Pain’ would be an apt title. It was such a sad story that I had to read several other books alongside it to break up the misery. On a positive note, every time I picked the book back up, I remembered the story clearly and was able to continue reading as if I never put it down. It wasn’t all bad, it’s just that as the story progressed, I liked it less and less and by the ending, I was just glad it was over.
I really enjoyed the start of this novel, in the first part we are introduced to the characters, their background, situation, friendship dynamics and such. I immediately felt drawn to the character of Jude, he was clearly troubled and I was concerned for his wellbeing – I was interested to see where this story would go. As the story progressed, you really got to know the characters, particularly Jude, with what I can only call, his self-destructive nature. The friendship between the friends was, at first, beautiful and I could see why people adored this book. There was something about the melancholy narrative that draws you in, coupled with the intrigue surrounding Jude, this was a page turner. It almost felt like I shouldn’t be reading it because it was so personal and private yet I had to know what secrets Jude was keeping.
However, by roughly the mid-way point, I began reading this book in smaller and smaller amounts because it was depressive episode after depressive episode and I was starting to wonder the point of the story. Where was the hope amongst so much pain!?
One thing that I really struggled to get my head around was the age of the characters, as I was reading, I kept picturing young men in their early 20’s, then I’d read a sentence mentioning one of the friends was 39 years old and it hit me all over again that this isn’t a story of youth. The reason I struggled with this is because these friends were some of the most selfish and self-centred characters I have come across in fiction, particularly JB, who I did not like at all. Their selfish nature was something I’d more associate with a younger group of men trying to find their way in life, and deserving of forgiveness as they were still trying to discover their place in the world. Maybe that’s me being unfair but I’d hope that men in their late 30’s and upwards would have lived long enough to not be so self-absorbed.
I remember reading chapter 5 – ‘The Happy Years’ and thinking finally, some happiness amongst so much pain, boy was I wrong!! And that’s my main issue with this book, it was just so damn depressing, yes – it’s well written, but sadness and pain is still sadness and pain no matter how beautifully it’s described. Give me some beautiful sorrow, some haunting darkness, even some stripped back, raw, gut-wrenching sadness any day and I’ll read it, but 720 pages of it without a flicker of hope – nope – no thank you – return to sender – this is not the book for me. Even Jude, who at first, I felt so drawn to, got on my nerves towards the end of the novel and if you’ve read this book, you’ll probably be thinking “Janel, you’re so heartless” but could one character be any more tragic? Tragic to the point of being unrealistic, to the point of breaking the connection with the reader, to the point of being written for no reason other than to depress the reader.
Now the blurb does state that Jude fears he will be unable to overcome his trauma so I can’t be too mad at the direction on the plot but some flashes of hope, a bit of light along the way wouldn’t have gone amiss. Overall, A Little Life was just too depressing for me.