Full Review : A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life (Amazon Link)

Year Published : 2015
Genre : Literary Fiction, Contemporary, Drama, Heavy and Bleak (not a category, but should be)

Edition : Kindle eBook
# of Pages : 720 pages (The hardcover for this looks scary amounts of huge.)
Time Spent Reading : 17.5 hours


When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. 

Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.


**So I usually don’t do trigger warnings but trigger warning for this whole review, I try to explore all of the thorny topics that this book explores to some extent. Also, while I tried to make this spoiler-free, there’s still some delving far into various aspects of the book so proceed with caution if you’re certain to read it before long and want to keep details vague. Short version of this review- it’s a good book, made me cry. Some rough aspects but highly worthwhile.**

There is this film called Lilya 4-Ever.. by the way, warning, this review will contain some spoilers for that film. In short, it’s one of the most deeply moving, effective, and haunting films I’ve ever seen. While not for the faint of heart, I think anyone who would watch the whole thing would come out with empathy afterward. It’s based off of the tragic true story of a young girl named Danguolė Rasalaitė. What’s interesting is that her life story was a bit trimmed in the film, removing some terrible coincidences that seem almost too horrible to be believable (and yet, they happened.)

I bring this up because in many ways I think of A Little Life as being like an exhaustingly long literary novel version of Lilya 4-Ever, without the trimmings.

Ultimately the main character, Jude, is like a combination of all the haunting accounts I’ve ever heard about human trafficking. The rampant self-harm and low life expectancy in Southeast Asian child brothels, Steven Stayner’s continuing struggles after being rescued, the layers and layers of failures on the part of the state to care for Cyntoia Brown, the list goes on. Reading through Jude’s experiences is like remembering all of that and feeling outrage anew.

Combining many misfortunes unto one character might come off as dramatized, but a compounding of risk factors is not unheard of. The telling of his story was grippingly effective nonetheless.

I felt pretty much every emotion while reading this. Sadness, anger, happiness, fear. For example, Jude has a nightmare at one point and I almost dropped the book and shuddered with surprise. In his happiest moments with Willem (another main character of focus) I was aww’ing up a storm. Willem is one of the easier characters to relate to, and instrumental in understanding Jude. Harold is another character who is brimming with warmth and pretty much impossible not to love. 10/10 for making me feel for the characters and be willing to fight through the grimmest atmosphere ever to connect with them.

However, there are some worthwhile criticisms to be made. Willem and Jude are centered in the plot to an almost obsessive degree. The original summary mentions there being four guys, a group of talented friends who move through life together. Yet JB and Malcolm are kind of forgotten after a while, especially Malcolm whose sub-plot is all but discarded. There’s also the matter of how horribly tragic so much of the book is, relentlessly so. I’ve heard some fairly reasoned arguments about how this is a group of gay or bi characters and yet there is this primary focus on the miseries of their lives and how that could be considered fetishistic and cliched. I can definitely see some areas that should have been handled differently. But the vast majority of discourse I’ve read on all sides has been positive- it has a real way of sparking emotion despite the questionable aspects.

Final add-on note- while I’m not very knowledgable on the topic of self harm, I thought that topic was approached in a very eye-opening way. The reason why a certain character does it and has such difficulty stopping is made vividly understandable. There is so much ignorance and lack of sympathy surrounding that topic, so seeing it elucidated here in this emotionally charged novel was good.

Overall Rating – 10/10

Why You Should Try It – This is an emotional rollercoaster of a book. Though enormous in length, it reads surprisingly fast with a sort of page turner element to the style, yet remains heavy and fearlessly tackles all manner of issues and hardships. I felt like the topics of self harm and PTSD from human trafficking was intelligently handled. If you want a tearjerker that makes you feel deeply for people, there are few books that put it all out there like this one does.

Critique – The endless array of suffering is just too much and I think some depictions would cross the line for a considerable number of people. For a book that is this long, some parts could have been better managed, specifically to give other seemingly main characters more opportunities to grow. Also, there are no relevant female characters. At all. Seems like a purposeful omission but still a bit weird.


6 thoughts on “Full Review : A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

  1. I love this review, Kitty. I honestly teared up a little bit coz it made me reflect on my own reading experience with A Little Life. I think this is in one of the Top 3 most depressing books I’ve ever read in my life but there’s no doubt that Yanagihara was able to evoke a wide range of emotions from me. I laughed, I cried, I loved and I hated. I felt so much for Jude… And Willem 😭 It was a helluva emotional rollercoaster ride and even more than two years later, I can still recall all the feels! I’m so tempted to re-read this and review it (because I didn’t back then) but I’m also terrified to go through it all again 😂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. aww dini thank you so much for letting me know. ❤ I wrote this review in an emotional state as well and had worried at the time about whether I was going too far with some comparisons or getting too deep with it or revealing too much- but ultimately felt it was right to just let the (virtual) pen flow lol. Thanks so much for your comment and thoughts I blog for these and appreciate your comment muchly. ❤ Willem was what really got me too. I never expected it to be him, you know? All those emotions were preparing for and geared toward Jude and then what happened with Willem just came out of nowhere and in a way, puts the reader deeper into Jude's shoes and allows the reader to feel the pain of his situations in some clearer way. Will totally read your review if you re-read and write it in the future.


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