This was a rare case where I’m really glad I heard all the buzz I did, because I went in about as prepared as one can be for all of the emotional dark turns this takes. Ultimately, I’m calling it the best book I’ve read in a long time, in large part because of its ability to completely wreck my emotions, but also because it is written beautifully and constructed with such care.
A Little Life is a survey of the life of Jude St. Francis, a corporate lawyer with a traumatic past. The novel opens when Jude is in his mid-twenties, newly out of law school and living in New York City with his three best friends. The first 150 or so pages of the novel focus on these three friends: JB, Malcolm, and Willem and their struggles as they try to find themselves and make their mark in their respective careers. Through their eyes, we are introduced to Jude: their quiet, enigmatic, caring but very secretive friend whom they don’t understand but all love and look out for.
Thus introduced, we finally move into Jude’s perspective (though the perspective does shift in to a friend’s occasionally thereafter) and slowly learn why he is the way he is with vivid flashbacks to the abuse of his past and equally intense introspective passages of the trials of his present. Past and present shift rather seamlessly: a chapter usually starts in a present scenario, but shifts to look back between then and the previous scene’s present or some other recent past episode that then ties thematically to the present. It’s so intelligent and caring, the way its constructed. There’s also the barest, slightest hint of magical realistic elements like the when and why of the wounds that would open up on Jude’s damaged legs—the legs’ physical deterioration is indicative of time, which is grounded in reality, but the wounds themselves would appear often in tandem with Jude’s emotional low points or periods of loneliness)
To me it also has a very distant quality in its setting in Manhattan, a place that features so often in popular television and literature that it feels almost fantastical to those of us who don’t call it home. It also sits almost frustratingly outside of any discernible timeline. Characters work on computers and call and message each other on cell phones over a period that spans nearly thirty years, but there’s little mention of trend of fashion or developing technology so it all seems to collapse to a point centered in an undoubtedly modern—but ageless—era. Against this impressionistic backdrop, the focus shifts to the characters, who are vivid and very realistic. The story is engrossing because you care so much about finding out what happens to these people you care about and emotionally intense as you watch everything unfold. Heavy but engrossing and definitely well worth the time and the energy it takes to fully experience.