The novel centers around four young men who meet in college, roommates. One is an aspiring architect, another an actor, the third an artist, and the last is Jude. Jude is an enigma--a math and music genius without a past, with a pronounced limp and a darkness about him. Willem, the actor, and Jude share a room and are particularly close, and Willem becomes a source of unconditional love for Jude.
The sprawling novel covers the course of their adult lives, from successes and loves and losses and struggles. Willem goes on to be a famous actor after paying his dues as a waiter in New York. Jude forgoes math and music to become a lawyer, the threat of poverty governing his actions, and in law school he is mentored by a professor who joins Jude's circle of friends and then becomes family. Jude's doctor likewise becomes a loyal protector of Jude, even as he fusses at his patient for neglecting his wounded body.
Jude is special. He's been broken throughout his childhood--a past revealed in spurts throughout the book--and there's a constant struggle in the book between those who love and protect Jude and the walls he throws up to protect himself from past and the perceived threats of the present. A central question in A Little Life is whether love and friendship can heal a person who believes he's beyond help.
And yet there's joy in A Little Life too. Kindness and compassion are championed. JB, the painter, makes his name by capturing his friends on canvas, the moments of them laughing at a joke or listening to a story after a good meal. Malcolm, the architect, designs Jude's loft--without specific instruction--to accommodate the physical disabilities that plague Jude more as he grows older. Willem is a ceaseless caregiver, ceaselessly loyal. They all have flaws, but they exist in that realm where you know your friends' imperfections and they don't matter.
Did I mention the writing? The sucker punch passages that make you swallow hard because they ring so true?
“I have never been one of those people—I know you aren’t, either—who feels that the love one has for a child is a somehow superior love, one more meaningful, more significant, and grander than any other. I didn’t feel that before Jacob, and I didn’t feel that after. But it is a singular love, because it is a love whose foundation is not physical attraction, or pleasure, or intellect, but fear. You have never known fear until you have a child, and maybe that is what tricks us into thinking that it is more magnificent, because the fear itself is more magnificent. Every day, your first thought is not “I love him,” but “How is he?” The world, overnight, rearranges itself into an obstacle course of terrors. I would hold him in my arms and wait to cross the street and would think how absurd it was that my child, that any child, could expect to survive this life.”
“You won’t understand what I mean now, but someday you will: the only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.”