A Little Life Isn’t Trauma Porn
First, let me premise this review by saying, although I think this is one of the best books I have ever read and would love for other people to read and experience this book, this book covers many heavy and triggering topics that aren’t for everyone; therefore, it is not a recommendation, but imperative to read the trigger warnings before reading this book.
Okay, hopefully I didn’t scare you away because this book is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. You will experience heavy emotions throughout this 800-page book. Most of the time you will not only feel sorrow, you will most likely cry. Not a couple times…a few, at least. I’m not talking like shed a tear cry either, but legit sob. You will also witness – to me at least – what true love is between family, friends and companions. At the end of the day, this isn’t a happy book, but this is a book that will change your life.
A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, follows four college friends: Jude St. Francis, Willem Ragnarsson, Jean-Baptiste “JB” Marion, and Malcom Irvine. The book starts off with the group post-college making little to no money with big dreams of making it in NYC. You will follow this friend group for decades.
The protagonist in this story is Jude who was orphaned very young and wants to become a lawyer. You find out very early on that Jude is different from his friends due to unknown traumas that he endured. Throughout the book, you will get POVs from all characters, but it will eventually narrow down more to Jude and Willem’s POVs. Willem is Jude’s best friend out of the group. He is trying to become an actor, and like Jude, has no living family. Willem is the one that witnesses most of Jude’s ‘episodes,’ and they develop a strong bond early on even though Jude keeps his secrets sealed very tight. JB and Malcom are good friends that balance out the group. JB is an aspiring artist. He has no father due to early passing but has very loving and supportive women in his life: mom, aunt and sisters. Malcom is on the path to becoming an architect. His family comes from money, and his parents are not the warmest of parents, and they slightly favor his sister over him.
This book will immerse you into their friend group. I read it feeling like a fly on the wall or like a ghost unseen and witnessing everything they all think, feel and do. Hanya gets you invested and immersed into this group through a style of writing I have never experienced before. Instead of saving around 150 to 200 pages of a book describing/telling you who these characters are, she shares stories, memories and experiences of the characters individually and together that showcases who they are and why they are the way they are.
This book has controversial reviews. You honestly either love it or hate it because it is filled with trauma and heartbreak. I understand that people don’t want to read sad books. Some people referenced this book as reading “trauma porn.” Most people read to escape, to feel things like love, adventure and excitement. I’m one of those people that reads to experience perspectives of different lives and feel all emotions, even really sad ones. I didn’t view this book as “trauma porn;” I read this as an autobiography of someone’s life. Yes, this is fiction, but that doesn’t mean that this can’t ring true to someone’s life. I can understand the topics brought up can be uncomfortable, but sadly, this could be someone’s reality. So if you like this book, don’t let people think something’s wrong with you. To the people who read this and felt angry or disgusted because of how Hanya wrote the storyline - our world can be a very dark place and Jude’s story could be very real. Some people have lives that started the first day at a disadvantage and can be filled with a lot of pain and disappointment, but that doesn’t mean their story can’t be told. That was what this book was to me; Jude’s story being told. I was absolutely invested and moved. I feel I lived hundreds of lives through books that I will never experience or understand in my own life. This is one of those books that opens your eyes to the struggles that a single person can live with. It shows you that you never know where people have come from or what they live with every single day. Even though I cannot personally relate to the exact experiences that Jude and the other characters experienced, you can still relate to themes in their lives. Malcom felt unseen by his parents and was a people-pleaser. Jude experienced extreme loneliness and longing for a companion. JB struggled with extreme guilt and addiction. Willem felt absolutely helpless for the people he loved. What I am saying is even though there are extreme circumstances in this book, these characters are still very relatable and show the ugly side of life and how cruel the world can be. So, yeah, it’s not a happy book, but life isn’t always happy. For some people, it is harder than others to experience happiness. For Jude, this was the case.
It was harder for Jude to experience happiness in his life, but that didn’t mean he didn’t ever achieve it. There are some glowing moments for Jude that made you feel on top of the world for him. You wanted to grasp and hold onto those moments for Jude. It was these moments that kept him going, no matter how often he wanted to give up. What I loved were the little moments where he found peace in his life that can seem meaningless, but where he felt love and happiness. This story reminded me of a quote from another book called Haunting Adeline, when the main character asked someone a question about happiness and he said “[Happiness] it’s not something solid you can hold onto; it’s vapor in the wind, and all you can do is inhale it when it’s near and hope it comes around again when it blows away.” That is how I viewed happiness for Jude. He experienced things in his life he should have never had to, but he did inhale the vapors of happiness when it blew his way. He was blessed with some of the most amazing people who were brought into his life like Willem, Andy and Harold. These characters showed me what real love is. They never gave up on Jude and were with him through every hard day no matter how much Jude tried to push them away. They saw who Jude was, even when Jude couldn’t; they loved him when he couldn’t; they cared for him when he couldn’t; they were honest with him when Jude couldn’t be. They wholeheartedly loved Jude St. Francis. That’s what I loved most about this book. The support that everyone silently agreed to provide to Jude, not out of pity but just because they loved Jude and because he was a beautiful human being that deserved so much more, but he just needed more help to get where he wanted to be.
Everyone has their own story. Everyone has their struggles. Everyone needs support in their life. By the words of Willem, “there’s not an expiration date on needing help or needing people. You don’t get to a certain age and it stops.” Life is hard and we all do our best to try and find solace and breathe in the vapors of happiness when it blows our way. So I will leave you with this review and I hope I succeeded in encouraging you to read this book rather than steer you away. I seriously think about this book and the characters at least once a day. I think of quotes in this book regularly. I learned so much from Jude. He was treated horribly and he deserved so much more in his life, but he was the light in the lives he touched, and because of that, Jude forever lives in our hearts and “so I try to be kind to everything I see, and in everything I see, I see him.”
I created a playlist on Spotify that coincides with the A Little Life. It consists of 15 songs that I felt embodied the book. It does flow with the storyline. If you want to give it a listen, the QR code is below.
By Taylor Porter