Book Reviews

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara


Here we go…

I’ve been sitting on the review of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara for a few weeks. Part of the reason was I wanted to wait until closer to the release date on March 10th but also because I couldn’t put together some coherent thoughts without rambling or giving much away. So rambling it is.

Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm meet in college and couldn’t be more different. Yet despite their different backgrounds and personalities they remain friends for the next 40 years. As they navigate college, careers and family -which all seem straightforward and common- they are tethered together by Jude. He is quieter, reserved, secretive and in pain. They know this without really knowing what happened to him. The novel slowly and carefully visits his past giving the reader just enough clues to figure out why he is the way he is. The only thing that bothered me about their friendship was that none of them bluntly asked him about his past. They avoided it completely. I think I would have been the friend that annoyed him the most by asking questions and wanting to share some of the burden. To those who’ve read it, I would have acted like Andy, a side friend but very important person, privy to his current state.

This epic piece of literary fiction is going to be one of most difficult books for me to review because I simply don’t feel I have the words to do it justice. All I can really do is review this novel from the heart. I don’t feel equipped to dissect it literary-wise.

Fair warning: It’s not for the faint-hearted. It’s not for someone who can’t digest or read about a person who has endured horrendous and heinous abuse as a child to then go on as an adult and deal with those years of trauma in a way that will also upset. And yet, somehow, I couldn’t put the book down. I did put it down, and often. I needed a breather, a chance to regain my composure. And many times when I vowed to “read no more”, I had to pick it back up. Not once, though, did I find myself saying “Oh, come on, get over it already!” as I have done in the past when a main character can’t seem to get it together. Unlike those other characters, I found myself rooting for Jude, sympathizing with him and wanting desperately to be in his life-a friend to this fictional character, a sister, a co-worker-someone to lessen the burden a little.

There is no storyline, no plot. It felt like a memoir or a character study about the human condition and human relationships. Nature vs. Nurture. Something that has always fascinated me. Yanagihara created a  novel like no other, taking bold risks where many authors simply don’t go with this 736 page book. Publisher’s Weekly perfectly stated:

“This is a novel that values the everyday over the extraordinary, the push and pull of human relationships—and the book’s effect is cumulative. There is real pleasure in following characters over such a long period, as they react to setbacks and successes, and, in some cases, change. By the time the characters reach their 50s and the story arrives at its moving conclusion, readers will be attached and find them very hard to forget.”

It is the most disturbing book I have read and one that will stay with me forever. Coming across another book this year that affects me so will be a challenge. And that’s why I’ve been in a reading slump since. Nothing has kept my attention or moved me so, creating this pattern of distraction and books being put down and returned after 50 pages.

The synopsis from Goodreads does a really good job of highlighting what this story is about and how it may or may not affect readers. I feel that every person reading this will come away with their own experience like all books do. Putting aside all of the troubling scenes, it’s a story about friendship and survival. At first I thought the title “A Little Life” was simply that, examining a little life of a fictional character and his friends. Then I got to the halfway part of the book and the title was used in a sentence and once again I was swallowing down lumps and holding my breath.

So, for me, this story brought me back to a time when I was a newbie teacher (over 15 years ago) working at a therapeutic day school. The students placed there were not severe enough to be in a residential facility, but some ended up there after all attempts were made to “rehabilitate”.  It was a sort of “last hope” for many parents and guardians when their home schools failed them. We offered an education but it took a backseat to the intense individual, group and family therapy our facility provided and required for treatment. Some of the children were born with their disabilities/mental disorders and their supportive families were trying to siphon through all the terminology, behaviors and medications that came along with their diagnosis. Some of the students were from very traumatic homes, born into a life that they didn’t ask for. Many of their parents were no longer in the picture and their foster parents and guardians were trying to “undo” years of disappointments, abuse and neglect. I can’t comment of any particular cases but their beginnings were not very different from Jude’s. We received those children at ages eight and up and their current placement was much better but undoing those neglected early years lacking nurturing, love and safety was very difficult. I think about each and everyone of those children today. What are they doing? How are they doing? They would be in their mid twenties/thirties now, maybe even parents themselves. A few sadly, didn’t make it into adulthood, overcome with darkness. And because of this most rewarding experience, I was not shocked by the story in A Little Life, just saddened for the reminder of another kind of life outside my bubble of good fortune.

After reading it I wanted to talk with Yanagihara. What I found deeply challenging was reliving those past scenes with Jude and how if affected his self worth and value. His friendships later with Willem, JB and Malcolm were so moving and at times light and hopeful. That back and forth feeling of despair to hope wore me out. Yanagihara was able to encompass all those feelings in such a way I can’t understand. I mean understand in that there was no other way she was able to do it so profoundly, accurately and sincerely without having read through pages and folders of caseloads herself. That blew me away. She must have once been a counselor or knew someone or just must be the most empathetic person in the world. This is where brilliant authors amaze me-the ability to fearlessly tell the stories of all the Judes out there and not glorify or manipulate readers’ emotions. Just when I was caught up in my head looking for answers, I found this article and interview with her in BookPage that helped me put the story into another light.

“One of the themes of the book is this hope that we all live with: that one other person can save us—and the realization that we really can’t be saved, that the idea of being saved itself is sort of a false conceit,” Yanagihara says, citing the “limits of what any one person can do for someone else.”

And so, my hope is that the content or warnings of an intense read or mere size of this tome does not deter readers from picking up this book. In dark there is always a shred of light. Jude’s friendships, resilience, relationships and fight to survive was the light throughout this novel. Even with the darkness shadowing many of the pages it is the light, hopefulness and unwavering love that I remember most about this story.

Thank you to Edelweiss and Doubleday for the opportunity to read this ARC. I was not required to post a review nor was I compensated.



14 thoughts on “A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

  1. I looove this post. You really get to the heart of what makes this book so incredible and layered and important. And the quote by Yanagihara at the end is perfection.

  2. Your review, along with Shannon’s, has convinced me I need to get to this one despite it’s length. I get angina at about 350 pages. But this one feels worth it. I so know that feeling of not feeling you’re able to do a book justice and sometimes that’s all I need to hear. If something impacted you that much, I really want to see what it has going. Thanks for all the effort you put into this, it shows.

    • Haha! You cracked me up with the “angina” comment. It didn’t feel as long as it looks and I have had trouble with very short books, so it really depends on the content. Thanks for the kind words. 🙂

  3. Wow, this book sounds so intense. I’ve been seeing the book title everywhere all of a sudden, but your post clarifies why people are being so deeply affected by it. I don’t know if I’m going to read the book, but your fantastic post already has me thinking about the characters and themes of the book.

  4. Yes to everything you said, Marisa. I don’t know anyone who read this straight through. And yet, we all had to come back.

    I agree with you about Yanagihara- I feel she must have known someone to be able to embed herself so deeply in Jude’s pain and yes, as you stated, it is all the more shattering because it is true, it happening out there and these children are being destroyed.

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