Brace yourself for the most astonishing, challenging, upsetting, and profoundly moving book in many a season. An epic about love and friendship in the twenty-first century that goes into some of the darkest places fiction has ever traveled and yet somehow improbably breaks through into the light. Truly an amazement—and a great gift for its publisher.
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cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity.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.
In rich and resplendent prose, Yanagihara has fashioned a tragic and transcendent hymn to brotherly love, a masterful depiction of heartbreak, and a dark examination of the tyranny of memory and the limits of human endurance. – Goodreads
The first thing I need to say is that no matter what I write, my review will not do this book justice. The second thing I need to say is that this book will destroy you. And you will be grateful.
A Little Life is a story of friendship, of loyalty and of finding the strength to face the unimaginable – both good and bad. It begins with four friends, Willem, Jude, Malcolm and JB, who are college grads trying to make their way in New York. The story follows these four (mainly Jude and Willem) through nearly 40 years of their lives – but the story will spend as much time in the past as it does moving forward. Which it must in order for us to understand the gravity of decisions made and trust forged and broken.
At the centre of this story is Jude St. Francis, a young man whose incredible intellect is housed in person who is so deeply damaged (physically, mentally and emotionally) that even his friends don’t know the horrors his past contains.
Jude is not easy to get to know. It isn’t until about halfway through the book that you begin to see him take shape. Yanagihara took her time, she teased out his story one small thread at a time, just enough to keep the story moving and not a millimeter more. But despite her slow, deliberate and purposeful pace, I found that she addressed my questions almost as soon as I’d formed them in my mind. I’d wonder about a particular aspect of a character or the plot, and within half a chapter, she would have started providing answers (or at least discussed the lack thereof). The information she holds back she holds back because there’s a better time and place in the story to reveal it, and I learned to trust that she knows what she’s doing.
Next to Jude, the most important character in the book is Willem. In contrast to Jude, who is aggressively private, Willem is open – sunny, even. Though he is promiscuous with women, he is fiercely loyal to his friends – above all to Jude. He is Jude’s friend, roommate and protector. The book is formed around these two characters, and their steadfast friendship will serve as a beautiful counterpoint to the immense pain you will discover between the covers of this book.
Though the premise sounds simple – the story of four college friends growing up – it is anything but. This book tackles every shade of human experience and emotion you can imagine, along with a few you probably can’t. So don’t let the description fool you; this book will shock you. And I suspect that no matter who you are, there is a line, a page, a chapter (maybe even more than one) in this book that will stop you in your tracks and make you feel like Yanagihara wandered into your head and stole your innermost thoughts. As Alan Bennett put it:
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.” – Alan Bennett, The History Boys
This is an intensely personal book – not only because it deals in the secrets and personal lives of its characters, but because it will become personal to everyone who reads it. If you are human, this book will affect you.
It’s also a very long book, and what makes it even more challenging is that, while the writing is a flowing style that would normally have you reading all night, the content won’t allow for marathon reading. I found that I couldn’t read more than 50 pages (100 tops but that was really hard) at a time. The emotional impact was such that it became physically uncomfortable to keep reading and I had to step out of the book and give myself some respite.
Which leads me into a very important piece of advice: Do not start this book when you’re feeling vulnerable or have PMS. It is not that kind of book. It is beautiful and terrifying and you will feel, at times, like you can’t take anymore. It will shake you to the core. It will tear out your heart and tap-dance on it with stilettos. But it will be worth it. Every tear you shed, every desperate attempt to abandon these characters, every time you go back to them because you just have to know what happens – in the end this book is worth it. These characters are worth it. Because they come alive on the page, and you will be as invested in their lives as if they were part of your own family.
I read this book as a buddy read with Julianne from Outlandish Lit, and honestly I don’t know if I could have handled it without her! I know it affected her deeply as well. She talks a little bit about her experience with the book in this post.
A further word of warning: While I don’t want to go into specifics as it’s important to let Yanagihara unfold the story as she sees fit, this book tackles deeply upsetting and disturbing topics, and does so in great detail. If you find it difficult to read graphic content, or if you are triggered by the topics of abuse and self-harm, proceed with extreme caution!
Book Title: A Little Life
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Published By: Doubleday
Released: March 10, 2015
Genre: Fiction, Character-Driven
Date Read: March 26 – April 18, 2015
UPDATE – June 2017:
I’ve been thinking about this book a lot lately. And reading my original review, I realize there’s a lot in it I don’t agree with anymore. I don’t want to delete the original review – it was true to my experience of reading it for the first time when I did – but I feel the need to share how I feel about it now. Some of the changes in opinion come from time allowing me to further consider the content and my feelings about it, some have been influenced by other reviewers pointing out problematic elements I hadn’t seen before, but couldn’t un-see once they had been brought to my attention.
The first of these is actually quite obvious, but didn’t bother me overly while reading, and that is the absence of female characters. I don’t necessarily feel like a book has to have female characters to be valid (I can think of plenty of books that focused on one or the other and still worked well). But it is hard to see how a book that spans decades in the lives of four people can have so few women in any of them – and those that were there were barely developed at all. It’s not my biggest issue with the book, but it does leave me feeling a little less believing.
The major issue I have with this book is that as I’ve gained distance from it, I’ve felt less and less positive towards it. I look at it on my shelf and feel almost antagonistic towards it. For a while I ignored the feeling, attributing it to the deeply upsetting content of the book. But I’ve read books with disturbing content before that still left me feeling positively towards them. Not because of the content, but because I had become attached to the characters and felt nostalgic about the time I spent with them while reading – no matter how wrenching that time had been. I realized that even though I had an intense emotional response to A Little Life while I was reading it, it was because of the extremity of the abuse visited on one of the characters in the book (seriously, I can’t imagine not responding emotionally. If you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about) not because I had really grown to feel attached to or invested in the characters. Had the events been less extreme (and more realistic – that’s another thing that has really begun to bother me – that I just can’t believe it after a point) I don’t know if I would have really responded much. I don’t know if I would have really cared about the characters. Even with the intensity of the plot, I still had trouble connecting to the characters – a feeling that has intensified with time. And once I figured this out, some of the responses I experienced while reading snapped into focus.
I had a hard time reading much of this book in one sitting. It was partly because of the brutality that seemed more or less constant throughout much of the book, but I think another part of it was exhaustion. A book like this – long, dense, detailed, extreme – takes a lot out of the reader. At the time I thought this was a sign of good writing and character development, but I think it can also be indicative of the author pushing too hard. Because those times when I put the book down because I just couldn’t, I didn’t hold it in my mind, turning over passages that had stuck out for me or been particularly meaningful. It was more like taking a break from something really unpleasant that you must nevertheless go back to. I’m okay with brutality, pain, heartbreak and the realities of how horrific the world can be in a book, but I prefer it when the dark side of life is presented realistically and in a manner that is, despite its substance, beautiful.
I think, looking back, that two factors played a major part in my feeling like this book deserved such high praise. The first is just the sense of accomplishment that comes from finishing such a massive book. It takes a lot of time, effort and commitment. So when you finish a 700+ page book, you feel like you have earned some sort of kudos, and that the book must have deserved your effort. The second thing is that emotional reaction evoked by extremity. I think this is the first book I’ve read that evoked an emotional reaction without it being due to incredibly well-drawn characters who came to life for me and their pain felt like my own. But in this case, as discussed above, that wasn’t the case. But because previously that emotional response accompanied books that would go on to be listed among my favourites, it felt at the time like this had had a similar effect. It took that time and distance to be able to separate out my emotions and identify the nature of them.
The weird part of this whole experience is that as time has passed and my feelings towards this book have changed, I’ve been left feeling vaguely cheated. I feel like the author almost took advantage by manipulating emotions using brutal means, and instead of developing characters I could have a long-lasting relationship with, she just beat me over the head with a blunt object and left me vaguely concussed, delirious and with a bitch of a headache.
So I don’t know where this leaves me in terms of this book. I don’t feel as positively towards the book, characters or author as I thought I did, but that said, I still remember that there were parts of the book that I did like. There were passages I remember marking and moments where the characters did reach out and take shape. I don’t think this is a 10/10, amazing book anymore, but I also don’t think it’s a bad book. I think it comes out somewhere in the middle. I suspect that this book will be quite polarizing – there will be those who absolutely love it, who completely disagree with me about character development and who have been left with a much more positive lasting impression. And I know there are also those who absolutely hated this book, some who found it predictable and transparent and who don’t see much (if anything) in the way of redemptive qualities. You’ll have to draw your own conclusions on this one, but this is the only book I can remember my feelings about changing so dramatically, and it felt disingenuous not to address my later impressions in a review that, though published a long time ago, remains current and accessible on my site.
I’d love to hear from you – have you read this book? Did you have an extreme response to it, and if so was it positive or negative? Did you feel as if your opinion changed over time? Can you see yourself picking it up to read again or is it one you’re glad to put behind you?