For reasons I can’t entirely explain, I recently downloaded audiobook versions of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and A Little Life: A Novel by Hanya Yanagihara.  I had read both of these books within the last three years, so their plots and characters were still very much on my mind.  Perhaps that is why I wanted to re-read them.  

In rereading (or in my case, having the book read to me) one has the pleasure of seeing how the author is unfolding the plot and relationships.  Details that one missed the first time through are more fully understood.  Foreshadowing is more vivid.  It is as if one has gone from black and white to Technicolor.

Both books have quite a bit in common.  

In each the author explores how traumatic events during childhood can shape and mold one’s life forever.  They are both novels about orphaned boys who make their way to adulthood.  That’s a well-worn literary genre, to be sure, but each author does something original with it.  Large portions of both novels are set in contemporary New York City.  Both novels are also, to a certain degree, about beauty and the transformative power of art to both unsettle and heal.  

For me, however, the most original element in each novel is the exploration of friendship and its ability to sustain and give life—more than parental relationships, more than romantic relationships (although many successful romantic relationships are built on friendship).

The prism at the center of both books, through which each story is refracted and told, is a friendship.  The signature friendship in each novel starts in adolescence and lasts for a lifetime.  The power of each friendship is literally life saving in both instances.  

The intimacy of having these stories read to me brought these friendships to life in a way that unsettled me to the point where the death of one of the characters left me bereft—much more so than when I simply read it off the page the first time.

Both novels have pushed me to look at my own friendships—particularly those that are longstanding.  I’m fortunate to still be in touch with people I’ve known all my life.   However, a source of sadness in my life is that while I am still connected to a wide network of friends, I have not tended these friendships or developed new ones as much as I would have liked.  As I look to the next chapters of my life, I hope I can do better at this.

Near the end of A Little Life: A Novel a group of friends is gathered around a table and the conversation drifts to whether their lives have been meaningful.  Most of the conversation focuses on professional achievement.  Then, one of the main characters interrupts the conversation to say, “No, I know my life’s meaningful because I’m a good friend.  I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.”

Words to live by.

Published by Rob Radtke

President & CEO, Episcopal Relief & Development, husband, father, friend, traveler, reader, New Yorker.

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