Synopsis (Goodreads): 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cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity.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.
I’m sometimes asked why I reread books, and what it takes to draw me back to a story or an idea. In summary, some books are just too good to read only once, others you revisit because you will take away something different each time based on your mindset, and finally, sometimes the breadth of a book is so broad and so deep that you need to read it again to better absorb the ideas and messages.
I’ve been meaning to reread A Little Life since I first read it in 2016, but I knew I’d need to give it a couple of years before revisiting it because it was a heavy and extremely emotional rollercoaster of a read that first time round. I also knew that reviewing it would be hard because in many ways it is such a complex book that it would be difficult to review without giving too much away.
Following four friends through several decades of their lives, the story is simultaneously a (very long) character study and an exploration of all forms of relationships and indeed in humanity in general, in all its darkness and glory.
Jude St Francis is indeed the centre of gravity in the novel, and as the details of his childhood are gradually revealed through the story, you find yourself constantly having to put down the book because you can’t even begin to imagine the trauma he suffers growing up and the sickening depths to which others (they can’t be labelled as human) can descend. It makes you question just how much one pain an individual, a child, can be subject to before their spirit is broken and why they may never fully recover from it.
Through her evocative prose, you experience this very internal battle going on in Jude because he is never able to forgive himself for the things that happened to him. How, despite the positive and redeeming nature of the friendships and relationships he forms, not only with Willem, Malcolm, and JB, but also with Harold and Julia, Richard, and Andy, the hatred, the scars, self-loathing, and self-blame he carries within him from his childhood trauma never fully allow him to accept the blessings in his life because he is always waiting for them to be taken away.
A book like this makes you realise how fragile and precious life really is, why children and their childhoods should be so carefully protected, how good friendships and relationships are what makes a life worth living, why trust in those relationships is essential, and ultimately how without self-forgiveness and self-love nothing will save you.
Conclusion – if you’re looking for a light read, this is definitely not a book you should pick up…ever. However, if you’re willing to be brave, you will be rewarded with beautiful, if raw, prose, great characterisation and powerful insights into all levels of human nature and relationships.