My daughter, a discerning teenage reader, read this YA novel a little while back and was telling me about it with great enthusiasm. She made it sound so interesting that I decided I should read the book myself. Unfortunately, I would have enjoyed it more had I not been spoiled on a major plot point — yet that spoiler was the very thing that drew me and made me want to read the novel. I’m not going to spoil it for you, though, so perhaps you’ll read and enjoy it.
The narrator of The One Thing is teenage Maggie, who was enjoying a normal, soccer-filled adolescence until she lost her vision. She’s not adapting well to being blind, and her snarky, far from optimistic voice carries the novel. Curtis does a great job of portraying Maggie as far from the stereotypical “inspiring” disabled person, although sometimes she strays a bit too far in the direction of being simply unlikeable.
One day, in the office of her parole officer (she’s been getting into a little trouble since getting sent to a special school for the blind), Maggie sees a ten-year-old boy named Ben who walks with crutches. That’s the odd thing: she sees Ben. She hasn’t seen anyone or anything for months — so why can she suddenly see this kid?
From that one inexplicable circumstance the story spins out into a tale of friendship, family, and learning to live with loss. It’s a good story, but it’s a bettr one if you don’t get spoiled, so I’ll stop here.
This is a very quiet story, what I can best describe perhaps as a very intimate story, about a sudden death and its immediate aftermath. When Lily McNab (easily the most likeable person in her family) is killed in a traffic accident, her loss affects her husband Hal, her sister Laverne (who lives with them and has never gotten along well with Hal), and her two grown children, Claudia and Matt. The bereaved converge on the small New Brunswick town where Lily lived, and their tangled relationships and hidden stories are explored with careful attention to detail. For a writer like me who usually writes stories with huge epic sweep spanning decades and generations, it was instructive to examine what a writer of Joan Clark’s ability is able to bring to the story of a handful of people closely examined over the one-week period between Lily’s death and her memorial service. There’s a level of intimate observation here that’s to be expected from a writer as skillful and assured as Clark.
A Little Life is a novel that’s received a lot of attention, a lot of critical acclaim (it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award), a lot of rave reviews, but also a lot of negativity from a smaller coterie of readers and reviewers who absolutely hated it. For me, the experience of reading it compared to another recent (much less literary) blockbuster: The Girl on the Train, in that I found it almost impossible to put down while I was reading it, but had to stop and evaluate when I got to the end how good it really was and how much I actually enjoyed it.
Spoiler: A Little Life is a much better book than The Girl on the Train. But it’s not without its flaws.
There will be other spoilers. I’ll try to not to give away any major plot points that you won’t have learned within the first 100 pages of this 700-page novel, but I can’t promise to keep you completely unspoiled.
If you read any blurbs, or even if you just read those first hundred pages or so, you may believe that A Little Life is the story of four college friends: Jude, Willem, Malcolm and JB, as they make their young adult lives in New York City and embark on their various careers (law, theatre, architecture and visual art, respectively). But that’s misleading. A Little Life is the story of one character, Jude. Point of view shifts, so it’s not always told from Jude’s perspective, but it quickly becomes clear that this is in no way a true ensemble cast: The other characters’ perspectives and stories matter only as they impact upon Jude. This is sometimes annoying when another character — JB in particular — clearly has as rich, interesting and troubled a life as Jude does, but we get to learn very little of it. However, it’s not necessarily a flaw in the story; in a book of this length the author definitely had time and space to explore four lives thoroughly if she really wanted to, but she only wanted to tell one story, Jude’s, and that story is more than enough to fill these pages and make them an engrossing read.