The entirety of A Million Little Pieces is told through James Frey’s point of view and is strictly limited to his thoughts, emotions, and reactions. James’s troubles begin roughly a decade before the beginning of the novel. James was a privileged child who grew up feeling like an outcast, despite the fact that his family was well-off and fairly stable. He claims he began drinking and smoking pot at age ten. Now, at age twenty-three, his addictions have spun wildly out of control. He is using alcohol and drugs in lethal quantities, is wanted in several states, and is blacking out constantly. When we first encounter him, he is on a plane but has no idea where he is going. He is bloody and his teeth are broken, but he has no idea what caused his injuries. His parents are waiting for him when he lands, and they take him to a world-renowned rehabilitation clinic, where the majority of the story takes place.
James has problems following rules. This extends from his behavior in the clinic to the style of his writing itself. He uses no quotation marks, relying instead on paragraph breaks to denote who’s speaking, even in conversations with multiple characters. His sentences are terse, and he sometimes fills entire pages with single-sentence paragraphs. He capitalizes about half of his nouns. Only a scribbled line marks the major sections of the book. As a patient, he rejects the Twelve Step program, the entire basis of the treatment. He rejects assistance at almost every turn. He violates a major rule and begins a relationship with a female patient named Lilly. The clinic staff members despair of James and tell him that if he doesn’t follow their treatment plan, he is almost guaranteed to relapse. It is understood that a relapse will likely kill him.
At first, James just seems difficult and self-centered. In time, though, his stubbornness turns into resolve, and he becomes determined to get sober. He becomes part of a group of friends that come from all walks of life and transcend all social and economic barriers, including a judge, the former Featherweight Champion of the World, a mobster, and a steelworker. He learns to accept help from other people and also how to support others. When Lilly is in trouble, James puts everything on the line to save her. In the Tao Te Ching, he finds a philosophy that compliments his worldview and makes the book the basis of his personal recovery plan. In the end, using his own willpower, James triumphs over his addiction.
Leonard is a mafia boss, though the book never directly refers to him as one and he never discusses his work in any kind of detail. He is an important man in Las Vegas, wears flashy clothes, and brings a spirit of celebration into the clinic. On two occasions—once to mark his winning a bet and another upon his release—Leonard orders a catered feast for all the men in the unit. Leonard has the power to declare a holiday and to dictate that certain events will be watched on television. He is also the person who successfully keeps James in the clinic after he tries to leave, essentially saving James’s life. Leonard has never married or had children, but he profoundly desires to do both. As he leaves the clinic, he “adopts” James as his son and pays for Lilly’s continued treatment. Though the staff fears that Leonard may be a corrupting influence on James, he is exactly the opposite. Leonard is a true father figure and the embodiment of honesty and faithfulness.
Like many of the people in the clinic, Lilly is a profoundly damaged human being. She is tiny and fragile-looking and wears oversized black clothing. Unlike James, Lilly did not come from a loving, stable family. Her mother sold her into prostitution when she was a child, trading her virginity for a syringe full of heroin. At the time the story takes place, she is living with her grandmother, a kind woman who eventually saves enough money to send Lilly to the clinic. Though she has been corrupted from the time she was a child, Lilly remains a pure figure in James’s eyes. The clinic forbids relationships between male and female patients, but Lilly and James disregard this rule and regularly meet in a clearing in the woods. When Lilly is in danger of a relapse, James puts his recovery and life on the line to save her. Lilly’s love replaces addiction as the most important force in James’s life. She inspires him to get better and gives him something to live for.