A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Book Review // A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life by Hanya YanagiharaWhen 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cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity.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.


A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Publisher: Doubleday
Genre: Adult, Literary Fiction
Publication Date: March 10th, 2015

A Little Life is literally pain materialized in form of a book.

It’s not the kind of pain you experience from heartbreak—over which you shed tears and feel better afterwards—it’s deep, gut-wrenching, innate suffering that leaves you feeling nauseated and hollow for days on end. Pain that feels like your soul was stripped bare, doused with gasoline, and set on fire. I’m not exaggerating—this book is completely, utterly devastating.

A Little Life paints a bleak picture of the lives of four characters; their thoughts, their daily hurdles, their hopes, and their dreams. It feels very much like a character study, but it also has a weirdly personal touch to it that gives its reader the feeling of being an invisible person standing next to them and accompanying them through their life. It oftentimes reads like a memoir, almost.

His persistent nostalgia depressed him, aged him, and yet he couldn’t stop feeling that the most glorious years, the years when everything seemed drawn in fluorescents, were gone. Everyone had been so much more entertaining then.

Every point of view that is introduced is rich in detail, every character painted so wholly and real, and every scene suffused with an eerily emotional quality, no doubt owing to Hanya Yanagihara prose, that you fall apart with it. Reading this book is the equivalent of watching a flower wilt and feeling something inside you shrivel—before you realize that the flower is you yourself.

The Little Life is undoubtedly harrowing in many ways, and there are issues I had with the story itself as a result of that, one of which is what is the point the author is trying to make? Because merely taking us on a journey of a character’s life filled with abuse, suffering and endless pain, and ending it with the character killing themselves can’t be it. Or can it?

One of the things I wanted to do with this book is create a character who never gets better. And, relatedly, to explore this idea that there is a level of trauma from which a person simply can’t recover. I do believe that really, we can sustain only a finite amount of suffering.

Yanagihara certainly did that—supply her character with traumatic events in his life—to the point of incredulity. I recall reading someone saying that this book is “torture porn”—and it is. It doesn’t tell a story with ups and downs, reprieve from pain (however short), rather than one of continuous abuse of a gay character in every imaginable form, and from every imaginable source possible.

It’s an unrelenting recount of the time and time again inflicted pain—until you’re almost too numb to even empathize anymore, and until the character and the story itself begin to feel static, and you detach completely.

I hope that the narrative’s momentum and suspense comes from the reader’s growing recognition (…) that [the character]’s too damaged to ever truly be repaired, and that there’s a single inevitable ending for him. — is there a reason that that character happens to be gay?

I finished reading A Little Life feeling like I survived it, just barely—734 pages of pure anguish, emotional and psychological torture—and with a bruised soul. And seeing as many people have since asked me if I’d recommend reading it—I honestly wouldn’t.


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You’ll have my eternal gratitude, love, and a life-long supply of virtual chocolate. 💞blue-watercolor-wash-texture-5letschat!-2
Have you read this book, or is it on your TBR?
If you have, what did you think of it?
(Does your heart still hurt to think about it as well?)

xx, Lily


39 thoughts on “Book Review // A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara”

  1. I read this last year, and like you, it devastated me. But I gave it 5 stars, because — and this might sound weird or dumb — it was 1. a beautifully written story about terrible things, but also 2. eye-opening that there is true evil in the world and some people are just so incredibly unlucky, and I think the author showed it to us in a very compelling way. Writing 700+ pages of various characters and having everything they do, seem realistic, and everything they go through, also realistic, is kind of an amazing feat IMO. Kinda lame to say it that way, but yeah….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It doesn’t sound weird or dumb at all! I found the writing beautiful as well, and I agree with you on the eye-opening part, but I feel like the realistic-part disappeared somewhere along the book for me, because it was just one tragedy after another, and at one point it tipped the scale and went in the direction of needlessly torturing a (gay) character for me.

      (I tried to search for your review on your blog, but I couldn’t find it … I’d love to read it, if you wrote one! 🙂)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, it did move into slightly unreal territory for me as well, especially when it was revealed how Jude’s legs had been maimed. But also… sometimes cruel people pick on the vulnerable so I didn’t 100% lose my belief in the story, I guess. My blog is still pretty new — I read this a year or so ago and only wrote a blurb review on GR.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yeah, it did move into slightly unreal territory for me as well, especially when it was revealed how Jude’s legs had been maimed. But also… sometimes cruel people pick on the vulnerable so I didn’t 100% lose my belief in the story, I guess. My blog is still pretty new — I read this a year or so ago and only wrote a blurb review on GR.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah, this is a fantastic review! This is quite possibly my favorite book of all time, and it’s definitely true that I still feel pain when I think about it. People tend to fall in one of two groups – they either love it or they hate it. Which is so interesting to me. I love reading reviews for this book, whether they are positive or negative and this one was really great!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much!

      I love reading reviews for really controversial books as well, and seeing everyone’s reasons for why they loved or hated it. It reminds me that people can see the same thing completely differently, and that everyone takes away something else from a book.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed my review! 🙂


  3. Interesting to read a (somewhat) negative review of this book, which is so well-loved by most! Personally, it was one of my favorites of last year; I decide my favorites by which books stay with me the most, and A LITTLE LIFE still hasn’t left my thoughts since I first read it! I agree that it’s painful to read, and it may seem unnecessarily so at times. I appreciate your honesty Lily!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Hannah!

      I’m happy you loved it so much, and I feel the same way—it’ll definitely stay with me for a long time. I’m surprised to hear that it’s well-loved by most, though, because I’ve read my fair share of completely devastating reviews for it. I’m happy I landed somewhere in the middle with this book, though rating this was really hard for me.

      Thank you for such an insightful comment! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve heard a lot of polarizing review about this book; both comment on the pain it inflicts on its character. Some highly recommend it while others don’t. I want to read this but the length and the emotional preparation I need to do really puts me on the fence.

    Great review Lily!


    1. Thank you so much, Tasya!

      Reading this book was really a split-second decision for me, and had I known just how emotionally harrowing it would be, I probably would have skipped it, especially considering its length. Definitely be prepared for that, if you decide to read it.

      ⚠ Trigger warnings:

      emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, child rape, child prostitution, kidnapping, rape, self-harm, disordered eating, suicide.


  5. Huh… I hadn’t even heard of this one before this. Strange because this really does seem right up my alley. Still, I’m such a mood reader and this one seems like it would be incredibly draining (both in length and subject matter). I’m glad that it is on my radar now but I don’t know if I’ll ever be in the place to take the plunge. This looks like one of those ‘too many books; too little time’ victims.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It definitely is! You should 110% be prepared for that, if you decide to read it.

      In case you do, these are some of the trigger warnings:

      emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, child rape, child prostitution, kidnapping, rape, self-harm, disordered eating, suicide.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks Lily – woah that is quite the list of triggers, huh? Appreciate it. Duly warned! There usually isn’t anything that will make me completely refuse to read a book but unless there are real and good reasons (other than shock value) for a lot of these things, I get upset.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Good god, this sounds super intriguing but also something I would NEVER want to read? I’m all for books that explore human pain, but 734 seems a little gratuitous and I feel like there should be SOME light to balance out the dark. As always, your reviews are fantastic, Lily. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  7. oh boy. oh boy. my best friend read it a long time ago and every now and again she will talk abt it and EVERY time she ends the talk with “but pls don’t read it okay”. i am dying just from what she told me abt the plot. so first of all, congrats on actually finishing this monster!! and honestly?? i was wary of reading even the review bc im just that scared of this book lmao,,, it’s a Great one, tho and im glad i did. u mentioned it was a struggle to finish the book and to write the review and it definitely payed off!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Honestly, what your friend does is soo relatable to me, because I couldn’t stop thinking about it for such a long time after I read it (and I still do at times) & I always tell people not to read it. It’s psychologically scarring, and also feels a bit like a particularly gruesome spin on the Bury Your Gays Trope to me. 😦

      Thank you so much, Anna! ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I just finished this book and loved it – but honestly, I can understand what you’re saying here as well, 100%. The line “Reading this book is the equivalent of watching a flower wilt and feeling something inside you shrivel—before you realize that the flower is you yourself” hit me, hard. However, there is some lightness in the book. Definitely not enough for what Jude deserves or the reader deserves, but I decided that my understanding of the book was that Yanagihara was making a comment on (as depressing as it is) that sometimes even the happiest of joys – finding a family, finding love, finding friendship beyond a doubt – cannot wipe away the darkness. I love this review though and definitely think you make some valid points!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ahhh thank you so, so much, that means a lot to me!! ❤

      I'm glad to hear you loved this book! And I do think there were glimpses of light, but they were so brief that they hardly registered in my mind, before I was plunged back into the depths of agony … (obviously, I'm still not over this book).

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Reading this book was an extreme emotional rollercoaster for me, I’ve never read anything like it and I know it is a read I will never forget. I loved to read your take on it and agree so strongly with what you had to say. I also wrote a review on A Little Life if you would like to check it out!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This is a book that you can only recommend accompanied by several SOS flashing trigger warnings. But I loved this book as torturous as it was. There is a cycle of abuse and trauma that yes, it is basically torture porn. I think the question Yanagihara poses is: is love enough to save us? Is love therefore enough to save people who are suicidal? She doesn’t think so/unsure but definitely not when someone has been a victim of relentless trauma and abuse.
    Amazing review! ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I completely agree. I love your interpretation of this book, and Yanagihara’s interviews and statements certainly corroborate your view on the questions she centered it around.

      Thank you so much for your lovely and thoughtful comment, Sophia! ❤

      Liked by 1 person

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