A Little Life: book review

ryan mcginley
One of the photos that Yanagihara used as oblique reference material for writing the book.

“Everyone needs to read a book that breaks them, ” said no one but probably also anyone that loves to read.

And not to be dramatic, but Tuesday night, that book happened for me: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

Now, I can (not very proudly) add an 816-page-long book to the list of things that I have bawled my eyes out over in the middle of the night.

Yikes. You might think. I know. It’s a cheap move to recommend a book on the basis of one’s emotional wreckage. By this point, you are either slamming the table and immediately adding A Little Life to your TBR list because you are a sucker for “some good angst”, or you are closing the tab because you think being “sad” should never be the sole selling point of a book.

But neither action would do the book justice, so just bear with me. A Little Life was the most painful reading experience, but it was also the best.

washington post
image source: Washington Post

I thought long and hard about how to divulge the best aspects of the book without giving away any of the plot, because unfortunately, it is one of those lovely pain-in-the-butt books that do not fit any synopses.

And maybe one thing that sums up the book to some degree is its cover. The close-up of a man’s face, the angle and distance so intimate that you see every detail of his sorrow: his wrinkles, his wince, his features all distorted as if drowning- and yet there’s also something brilliant and fearsome about the way he takes up the whole cover.

a little life

That’s what A Little Life feels like. A fever dream.

You’ll have a pleasantly diverse cast of characters. Some of them live the most despicable ways of life, yet are so powerful in creating nightmares for others; some of them are so lovely and good, yet so powerless in remedying anything.

You’ll have the main characters: four men who are friends since college. JB, an artist; Malcolm, an architect; Willem, an actor; and Jude, a lawyer.

And then you have Jude. Oh Jude. He is so brilliant and loveable, so gentle and intelligent, until you see that he is haunted by his mysterious past of abuse and trauma, which takes a toll on him both psychologically and physically.

And you start loving him for everything he does, but hating everything he has to go through, and you especially hate how he gives himself all the suffering that he doesn’t deserve, and how he is never truly saved.

And no, a “mysterious past” does not mean the juvenile-delinquent-starting-a-new-life trope in many YAs. It does not mean some unfathomable ordeal that actually gives the character extra charm. Instead, you swim through passages so graphic and heartrending that it is physically draining to read the book.

And yet after putting it down and complaining “This book is just too much”, you come back. Every time I thought that the book was too ruthless in showing the ugliness of people and the tyranny of trauma, I was pulled back by the unwavering friendships that it depicted.

Constant suffering and heartwarming connections don’t seem to be antitheses in Yanagihara’s universe. They are codependent, as friendship and devotion stem from the darkest moments, but it is also the loss and betrayal of these friends that engender the greatest pain. As a result, you just kind of hate the author for offering no consolations other than the tender moments laced between the tragic events, but as the New Yorker review puts it, you can’t let go of the story because it can “drive you mad, consume you, and take over your life”.

another image that inspired Yanagihara’s characterization.

The book’s extensive description of self-harm and sexual abuse had divided critics, and before publishing, Yanagihara had to convince her editor to keep some of it in the book. (so if that is something that you are sensitive to, you should take that into account when deciding if you want to read it)

Her writing takes your hand and then plunges it right through flames. Gently cups your face and then drowns it under water. The language is very flexible. Usually Yanagihara writes with a reflexive and clear flow, but when necessary, the writing expands into metaphors and imagery. In the last fifty pages, there are sentences that made me weep out of nowhere.

(i am holding myself back from quoting the book with all my strength here.)

Yanagihara thinks that this photograph by Diane Arbus represents the book in that it is “a portrait of loneliness”.

At the end of the day, A Little Life had me- and many others- sobbing not because it is sad (gosh, it is), but because it is so hopeful. It hopes that despite all the torturing forms a life can take without any possibility of redemption or improvement, despite the fact that we aren’t guaranteed what we deserve, there is some beauty in however we end up living (and dying).

“I wanted everything turned up a little too high,” said Yanagihara in an interview with The Guardian.

There are many ways to come up with some slogan for A Little Life. Since its publication in 2015, A Little Life had been critically acclaimed- worshipped, gushed over. “The Great Gay Novel” (The Atlantic), “modern-day classic” (The Guardian), “Subversive Brilliance” (The New Yorker). It is also shortlisted for multiple awards including the Man Booker Prize.

But to me, it is always best summed up by my friend Jackie who recommended it to me.

I never forget her telling me in the locker room, “It will change how you think about friendship. It will change how you think about sexuality. It will change how you think about love. It will change how you think about death. It will change how you think about race. It will change how you think about betrayal.”

And at the risk of making you cringe and losing you after all these paragraphs, I will venture to say that it is going to change your life.

After all, Jackie even recommended reading it over re-reading Harry Potter.

find the book at: Amazon     Indigo     Book Depository
and if you want to read what other people thought of the book, check these out. they said everything so much more eloquently than i did. (i’m not going to put any reviews from major publications here because they all contain spoilers) x

Steph     Keeper of Pages    WellDoneBooks (YouTube)



8 thoughts on “A Little Life: book review

  1. This is an amazing review!! I love what you said here- “Constant suffering and heartwarming connections don’t seem to be antitheses in Yanagihara’s universe. They are codependent, as friendship and devotion stem from the darkest moments.” Yes!! This is exactly one of the reasons I loved this book so much and why I think it hurt so much. Also, your friend was completely right about how it changes how you think about all those things. In an interview Yanagihara said that love out of pity is not a lesser form of love, and before ALL I think I would have argued that, but having read her book I don’t think I can or want to. It’s amazing how mind altering this book is.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awww thank you for dropping by to read this! OH BOY it’s so hard to put everything into words. And bahahaha almost thought I was the only one reading and watching any Yanagihara interviews
      I come across. Her mind is fascinating. thnx for making me feel less alone!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. hahaha I went right to YouTube when I finished because I needed to hear from the actual mind that wrote this book. She’s such an interesting person! I also can’t believe she wrote ALL in just 18 months. I’m so impressed by her.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I just came across a meme the other day that said:

    me: this book brutally ripped out my heart and tore it to shreds then stomped it into the ground as i drowned in a sea of my tears and basked in eternal sorrow
    also me: here read it

    This post reminds me of that, although your post is, you know, wordsmithed quite a bit better.

    I tend to lean toward reading romance novels because I, admittedly, cannot handle large doses of books like the one you reviewed here. However, I do try to rally myself every once in awhile to read something like this. I’ll add it to my list.

    Thanks for this. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Amazing review, Mia! You’re right, every reader NEEDS a book to break them at some point in their lives – usually, a very specific point in their lives, too. It’s not that we love to suffer, but then again we have to, don’t we?
    I haven’t read this one but I’m glad you loved it so much. A book that changes the way you see so many things, including life, is one book to be read for sure 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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