People, especially conservatives I have noticed, like to make fun of content warnings. They like to say that it's yet another facet on the crystal of over-sensitive, over-entitled "millennial privilege." (Right, because we're the generation that needs to choose between iPhones and health insurance. So privileged.) Speaking as someone who has, historically, gotten panic attacks, let me tell you that for people who do experience anxiety from "triggers," it isn't something that's made up. Your blood pressure plummets, your heart rate picks up, you feel nauseous. It can feel like you're going to faint and have a heart attack at the same time. I no longer get panic attacks, but reading this book was so physically uncomfortable that, for a moment, I remembered with stark clarity what having them was like and how much I used to dread them.
This is because A LITTLE LIFE is the most wretched, depressing book that I have ever read. That is saying something, considering that I have some pretty strong contenders on my "just-tear-my-heart-out-why-dont-you" shelf on Goodreads, which features books such as OUTLANDER, for its gruesome torture and rape scenes, KINDRED for its grim portrayal of slavery in the South, THE BOOK OF YOU for its portrayal of stalking and abuse, and the previous winner of the title for "most depressing book of all time," THE LAST INNOCENT HOUR, an extremely visceral WWII-era book about an American woman who finds out that her husband is a Nazi and experiences severe emotional, physical, and sexual abuse over the course of the novel. I am someone who rarely takes offense to books, and reads bodice-rippers from the 1970s for fun. My tolerance for problematic content is very high.
This is actually my second time attempting to read A LITTLE LIFE. The first time, I received a copy of it as an ARC but ended up DNF-ing it around 80% in and writing a 2-star review for it on Goodreads. It was upsetting me too much to finish, and I actually felt myself becoming physically nauseated from reading about the subject matter. There's a reason most of the reviews are either ultra-positive or ultra-negative, and I think that rating really stems from your mindset on depressing books. At the time, my mindset was, "This book made me feel like crap afterwards, ergo I did not enjoy it," so the two-star rating was an accurate representation of my feelings at the time. This time around, I was more aware of what I was in for, and was able to steel myself going in. The four-star rating I am giving this book this time around is to acknowledge the beauty of the writing, the compelling portraits of the characters inside, and the very on-point portrayals of anxiety and body dysmorphia.
A LITTLE LIFE is about four boys named Willem, Malcolm, Jude, and JB. They are all talented and brimming with potential when we first meet them while they are in college. Willem is an actor, Malcolm is an architect, Jude is talented with numbers and logic and law, and JB is an artist. Willem and Jude forge the closest relationship that ends up growing over the course of the novel, but the four of them retain a closeness that is reminiscent of the cult-like bond of the college-age kids in Donna Tartt's THE SECRET HISTORY, especially since the bonds between them are largely defined by secrecy. Specifically, one secret: the history of their friend, Jude, and his secret past.
Jude is essentially the main character of this book. Everything - the events, the characters, their narrations - all revolve around him. He is the best-looking of the bunch but also the most reticent. He is in chronic pain from a childhood accident he refuses to divulge, incredibly private, and has very low self-esteem and poor body image. As the story unfurls, we learn that he was the victim of truly horrific child sexual abuse and physical abuse, and has been able to recover from these events psychologically. To compensate for his physical and mental pain, he self-harms - something that his doctor basically enables by refusing to take action or force him to get help - and at several points in the novel, his self-harm intensifies to such a degree that he is hospitalized.
Willem, his friend and, later, his boyfriend, and Harold, his adoptive father, and Andy, the enabling doctor, are his closest confidantes, but even with them, he has walls that he refuses to lower. Bits and pieces of Jude's story come out, either in his own narrative arcs, or in reluctant admissions that are basically given under duress. He is a truly flawed and pitiable character, and to make it worse, it never stops. His past is bad enough - God, how I ached for him - but his future offers no respite, either. One by one, those in his life leave him - or at least, he perceives them as leaving him - either by choice or reluctantly, and Jude allows his life to spiral out of control. Being in his head is a truly terrible place, because he is so vulnerable and negative and damaged. I can't help but feel that this book takes a highly ableist view of disability, much in the same way that ME BEFORE YOU did. Jude is portrayed as being a fraction of a person, someone who is broken and beyond help.
Even though I enjoyed both this book (ultimately) and ME BEFORE YOU, I can understand the criticisms of both books. Both books portray disability as being an obstacle that cannot be overcome and in both cases, disability is weighed against able bodies as being the desired norm, and any action that cannot be matched against one who is able bodied is considered a depressing short-coming. With the other books on my depressing book shelf, they had some sort of redeeming value or message, but A LITTLE LIFE is so bleak. What is the message, then? That some people are beyond redemption and should be allowed to rot away on their own terms, like a piece of forgotten bread? That was the message I got here, from Jude, and his pointless struggles, and how all effort to live and carry on only resulted in more pain - like he was being punished for trying to live his life as best he could.
I have never done this before, but with A LITTLE LIFE, I slipped a little piece of paper inside the book before donating it that listed out all of the content warnings. I know some people get angry about these and consider them spoilers, but I couldn't bear the thought of someone going in cold and feeling that same icy feeling of dread that I did while reading this the first time. The content warnings in this book run the gamut from child sexual abuse to domestic violence to medical gore to grievous self-harm to anxiety and post-traumatic stress flashbacks and substance abuse, and just about everything else. I hope the next person who gets this book is able to enjoy A LITTLE LIFE for the think-piece that it is, but I would not, in all honesty, recommend this to anyone with an anxiety disorder or a history of abuse, as I think the flashbacks and the content would just be way too much.
P.S. You don't have to use content warnings, and aren't obligated to be responsible for others, but please respect the people who need/want them. Anxiety is not a joke, and it is very unkind to make fun of people who experience it. Consider this my PSA for the day.
4 out of 5 stars