Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

At a small Massachusetts college, four men form a life-long bond. There’s kind Willem, an aspiring actor; Malcolm, who builds intricate structures out of paper; and JB, a budding painter with a somewhat abrasive personality. And at their center is Jude, a brilliant but guarded man, damaged by an unspeakable past. As the decades pass, their friendships are altered by adult successes and failures, betrayals, and unconditional loyalty.

As the narrative moves forward through the years, Yanagihara uses flashbacks to slowly, intricately pull back the layers of Jude’s personal hell. She reveals the depth and origins of his self-loathing, the hyenas that track him through even his best days, and the awful cycle in which he is trapped. I hope it is not a spoiler to say that this book deals with abuse — physical, sexual, and verbal. I bring this up because, although Yanagihara’s descriptions of abuse are not graphic, they may be triggering to readers who have experienced trauma.

A Little Life is an incredibly immersive novel that puts readers into the head of someone both physically and mentally scarred by abuse, and it is heartbreaking — both because of what Jude has gone through at the hands of others and because of his inability to trust his friends and accept their love. Because in addition to being a portrait of a broken man, this novel is about friendship, loyalty, and the family a person can build around himself. A Little Life is perhaps the most unique love story I’ve ever read.

As those who have read Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, will expect, A Little Life is brilliantly crafted. The writing is fantastic, and the structure worked really well, except for a few awkward transitions from past to present tense when a flashback caught up to the current moment. While reading, there was one narrative technique that felt odd, but by the end of the book it made total, heartbreaking sense. It just could have been executed a little better so that it didn’t seem so out of place.

At times, the sheer volume of misfortune that Jude suffers seems a bit unrealistic. How can it be that nearly every person he comes into contact with abuses him in some way? The punches just keep on coming (literally) and it’s no wonder Jude has so much trouble trusting even the people who genuinely care about him. But how much evil can a person really encounter in one life? [Edit: See comments for why I should have used the word “unfathomable” instead of “unrealistic.”]

This is a very heavy book, both figuratively and literally — it’s more than 700 pages! It covers some really heartbreaking subject matter, but it’s also a beautiful novel about love, loyalty, and brotherhood. If I were the type of person who used the phrase “tour de force,” I would use it to describe this book. (Alas, I would feel insanely pretentious if I said it earnestly.)

Bottom line: If you’re looking for a gut-wrenching read that will stick with you for months, look no further.

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25 thoughts on “Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

  1. I almost finished it yesterday, but didn’t quite get there….it will definitely be today! I think a word that’s come to mind about this one is harrowing. And I’ve decided I’m definitely going to need that unplanned “something light” next before I jump into Mercy Louis…so, I’m going to jam March a little more!

  2. It sounds like everyone is loving this book. Did you find yourself impatient with its length, or does it need every one of its 700 pages? Also, it sounds like you thought the amount of abuse he received might have been a little unrealistic. Or, were you just floored by it?

    • It’s so immersive that I didn’t think 700 pages was too long. Really, I think I was just floored by it. I mention this in some comments above, but I think my life experiences made it difficult for me to fathom that people really go through this kind of repeated abuse.

      • That’s what I thought you might have meant by it, but I just wanted to clarify it for myself. It’s impressive that such a big book is not getting any flack about being too long. I really have to try to make some time for this one. Thanks for clarifying!

  3. I started to get the same sense about the repeated abuse but, looking back on it, there was actually quite a bit of balance to the evil (most of which Jude was unable to see through his trauma). There are tons of discussions to be had around mental health and recovery that this book has sparked for me, I just need everyone to read it (and maybe do a re-read myself) so I can have them.

    • I think that’s a good point. And perhaps “unrealistic” wasn’t the right word for me to use; as someone who hasn’t been abused, it’s difficult for me to fathom this kind of repeated abuse from so many corners, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. And you’re right that this book opens up a lot of discussion about mental health and recovery.

  4. Just popping over from Shannon’s review of this one!

    I definitely see what you’re saying about the repeated abuse, but I think Shannon made a good point below about the mental health issues wrapped up in this. Once you’ve let someone abuse/manipulate you, it’s easy to continue to think and act in patterns that make it easy for others to do the same, even when they don’t mean to! I speak somewhat from personal experience here, though thankfully I’m beginning to work through it. 🙂

    Glad everyone is seeming to love this one so much! I mentioned in a comment on Shannon’s post that I didn’t think this one would be for me, based on the synopsis, but all the glowing reviews are making me reconsider.

    • I think ‘unfathomable’ might have been a better word for me to use than ‘unrealistic.’ With my limited life experience, it’s difficult to imagine that one person could suffer so much abuse from so many people, but I do understand how a person who has been abused can fall into patterns that open him/her up to more abuse.

  5. Ah, finally able to talk about this one! I agree with everything you said here-beautiful post. “The most unique love story I’ve ever read” is so true and I also agree with that one narrative technique that was odd while reading it. It doesn’t make sense until the end and I feel like I need a reread after blazing through it the first time. Can we please talk about Andy? He’s one character I want to talk about so much and could identify with the most-his reactions, his anger, his feelings of helplessness while physically helping the most! Maybe now that I’ve done my post I can move on a bit and get out of my reading slump. 🙂

    • I’m so glad you know what I was talking about! I didn’t want to give anything away, but I was worried my reference to it was too obscure. Oh man, Andy is such a great character! Now I want to have a big blogger book club so we can all talk about our feelings about this book.

  6. Ok, so I haven’t read either one of Yanagihara’s books yet, but i desperately want to read both. Does it matter which order I read them in? I realize that they are quite different, but still sometimes one can inform your impression of the other.

    • Hmm, that’s a good question! They’re so, so different that they’re hard to compare. I don’t think having read The People in the Trees really shaped my impression of A Little Life, except that I expected greatness. I don’t *think* the order really matters?

  7. I’ve been putting off reading other people’s reviews of this book until I wrote my own, but now I’m devouring all of the online reviews I can find. This book completely undid me, and I love so much of what you put into your review. “incredibly immersive novel” indeed!

    Just curious: was it the 3rd person POV switch to the occasional 1st POV that was the narrative technique that felt odd to you? It was a little odd to me, especially as the first time around it took me a LONG time to figure out who the narrative “I” was.

  8. I just started reading this (like I’m 20 pages in or so). At the very very beginning I was kind of nervous, because I think I might be starting to hate books about starving artists. But I’m already wrapped up in Jude’s character! Looking forward to being gut-wrenched.

    • Don’t worry, the starving artist thing kind of fades away! So glad to hear you’re already so wrapped up in Jude’s character! He’s one of the best characters I’ve ever read.

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