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“A Little Life” (Lesson): What I Learned From the Most Troubling Book I Have Ever Read

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

TW: Discussion of abuse

If you follow the novelist community, you may have heard of Smith College Alum Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life. The novel, set in the present, tells the story of four friends, all boys who met during their years at Harvard College, all from different backgrounds. The four of them eventually have great success in their careers, Malcolm as an architect, JB as an artist, Willem as an actor, and Jude as a litigator. The book’s main focus isn’t their careers, however. Within the first few chapters of the book, you find out that Jude has a troubling past, which he refuses to discuss with anyone. Nothing could’ve prepared me for what I was going to find out upon reading the rest of the book. Yanagihara describes in great detail the constant abuse Jude suffered throughout his life, making it an extremely difficult read, especially because it seems like Jude is nowhere close to redemption or happiness at any point in the novel. I finished the 814-page novel in about three days because, after the first 150 pages, I thought about nothing else for every second of the day until I finished the book — when I thought about it every other second of the day. I finished the novel in December, and I haven’t been able to start another book since (this is strange since I am an avid reader). During my two-month reading hiatus, I thought about what I took away from such an agonizing story, and how I could apply these lessons to my own life. 

The first and most obvious lesson I learned from A Little Life is that patience and sympathy are crucial elements of any interaction because you have no idea what someone has been through. Because Jude was far too traumatized to speak about his past, most people in his life, including his close friends, didn’t know the extent of Jude’s suffering. In one scene in the novel, JB mocks Jude’s voice and the way that he walks (with a slight limp). The reader understands that Jude is extremely self-conscious of his gait and that he thinks of himself as ugly and unappealing because of it. JB, of course, doesn’t know this and therefore doesn’t know that he only solidified Jude’s false, damaging self-image.

The novel’s constant descriptions of abuse and intense detail surrounding Jude’s mental and physical health are occasionally broken up with warm moments between friends, some of which save Jude’s life. These moments might feel more intense because of the stark contrast between them and the darkness of the rest of the novel, but they provide a fierce sense of relief and joy for the reader. These beautiful moments, which also seem to land when they are most needed, demonstrate how important it is to show and tell your friends that you love them.

On the flip side, it is important not to doubt that people love and care about you because they might show it in a way that is not obvious to you. One of the most agonizing patterns in the novel is Jude’s disbelief that people — namely his friends — care about him. It is safe to assume that until the last 10 pages of the book, Jude does not believe that anyone could ever care about him or love him. As a reader, you know this is completely untrue, which makes it so much more painful to read Jude’s thoughts about his self-worth. So, from an outside perspective, it is obvious that Jude is surrounded by love, but to him, it isn’t.

Although I didn’t need to read A Little Life to know that I should tell my friends I love them, or that I should be patient, it was an impactful, beautiful, and necessary reminder to do so.

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Lily Krivopal

U Mass Amherst '24

Lily is a sophomore management and Spanish double major who is passionate about community service. You can always find her in the pool or outside running, hiking, or reading in a hammock.
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