Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara / ★★★★★

Summary: Former college roommates Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm traverse life in the decades after college. Friendships shift, careers are made, lives change as the future unfolds, but the past haunts Jude, who suffered unspeakable childhood traumas, and who holds them together more than anything, for better or for worse.

They all hold their positions, and it reminds him of a set, in which every scene can be redone, every mistake can be corrected, every sorrow reshot. And in that moment, they are on one edge of the frame, and Jude is on the other, but they are all smiling at one another, and the world seems to hold nothing but sweetness.

Genre: Contemporary/Literary Fiction

Plot

I’m going to start off by summing up this book in one word: excruciating. Normally I would find it very difficult to sum up a book in one word, and even though a A Little Life is incredibly dense, incredibly intricate and thorough and long, the word excruciating truly sums up my experience with it. Excruciatingly painful, excruciatingly heartfelt, excruciatingly horrific, excruciatingly tender, excruciatingly devastating. This book is extravagant and wild, brutal and explicit and over the top. And while I loved this book with all my heart, I recommend it with caution. It contains child abuse, pedophilia, rape, self harm, and attempted suicide, and it contains these things relentlessly and extremely.

This book broke my heart. Parts of this book made me hate the characters, parts of this book made me hate myself, parts of this book made me smile, made me furious, made me laugh, made me physically sick, parts of this book made me sob and sob and sob. I cry at books occasionally, but I can count the number of books that have made me sob on one hand, and this book literally had me face down on my bed crying. It made me feel literal pain in my chest. This book is so real and raw and gruesome and terrible and fantastic.

A Little Life is very long and very dense and slow paced, but I managed to read it in just a week because every time I picked it up, I didn’t want to put it down. I was sucked in by the characters first, and then their stories. I loved loved loved reading these characters. I loved reading this book. It’s a dark and horrific exploration of trauma, abuse, and memory, and yet love and friendship in this book are so extremely deep and tender and heartfelt and so intensely complicated.

I will say that at times I did find this book so blown out of proportion that it tested the boundaries of what I was willing to believe as realistic, but since the story was so purposely written that way, I can appreciate it. A Little Life left such an imprint in my mind, and its one of the best books I’ve read this year, if not the best.

Characters

Has a character ever pained my heart more than Jude St. Francis?? I don’t know why I’m even asking this question, because the answer is no.

The characters of A Little Life drew me so completely into the story in the first few pages alone. I was surprised at how very quickly I became invested in Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm and the characters around them. I had this idea in my head that this book would be The Secret History-esque and everyone would be unlikable, but a lot of these characters – particularly Jude and Willem – entered my heart so completely. I don’t have the words to adequately explain how I feel about these characters. They really, truly gripped my heart. And then twisted it with all their might.

This book traps you in the lives of these characters. They’re so multifaceted, so flawed, and so real, as are the relationships between them. And some characters are positively, sickeningly vile. A Little Life explores the boundlessness of human love, and of human cruelty.

Writing

I loved the way this book was written. It flows in and out of past tense and present tense, present time and past memories. I thought I was going to slog through this book, but the prose achieves density with such fluidity, and I would read a hundred pages or more in one sitting. The writing is bleak and brutal and bright, and is such a singular style. Certain passages gave me chills.

The storytelling was so ruthless and gruesome and overblown, but it worked. It was crazy and terribly real at the same time. Everything exists on such a higher plain of misfortune in this book, and I loved how Yanagihara pulled it off.

Was I satisfied?

My feelings for this book are larger than satisfaction. My fragile paper heart has been torn to SHREDS. I had EXTREMELY high expectations for this book after hearing such high praise for it from several people I trust, and A Little Life met them, it overshot them, it blew them out of the water. My heart hurts so much, I literally woke up the day after I finished it thinking about it, lamenting it in my half-conscious state. This book is truly an experience and I feel like this review didn’t do it justice at all. This book will always devastate me and I’ll love it forever.

 

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

    • Ahhh thank you!! It actually wasn’t as difficult a review to write as I thought it’d be, probably because we’ve talked about it so much! And because it’s such an extreme novel, I didn’t feel like I had to shy away from using extreme language to describe it.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Your review is absolutely perfect! I love how you’ve captured both how beautiful this book is and how excruciating (excellent word choice) it is to read. I completely agree with you on all fronts – I think I read it in a matter of days because I physically had trouble putting it down and the prose was so gorgeous that I just lost myself in it, but the devastation that follows OH MY GOD. It’s been eight months and I still have SO MANY FEELINGS about this book!

    Since we have similar tastes, both enjoy historical fiction, and obviously aren’t afraid of heartbreaking epic books, you might enjoy The Lymond Chronicles (which I am still pressuring Rachel to read – but the copy she bought is with a friend in a different state so she’s off the hook until she gets it back)…

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    • Thank you!! Oh my gosh I haven’t been able to pick up another book since I finished, and I don’t know when I’ll even be ready because I’m still so hung up and Jude and Willem and I don’t want to move on to new characters yet. I don’t think I’ll ever be over this book.

      It’s funny how A Little Life makes me want more heartbreak, lol. I I just looked up The Lymond Chronicles and they sound really interesting! I think it had me at 1500s Scotland, hahah. I’m definitely adding it to my TBR!! Thanks for the rec!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Moving on from epic heartbreaking stuff like A Little Life is so hard! I think I usually opt for something lighter than I would normally pick and of a completely different genre, like YA or a lighter mystery to try and shift gears entirely, not fully committing to another intense book, but it’s difficult! I’m still sobbing about Willem and Jude!

        You are so welcome, I’m glad it looks like something you’d enjoy. The first Lymond book in particular is dense, but it’s worth sticking out, Dunnett has some phrases that honestly make my jaw just drop because how do you words? and Lymond himself is a hell of a character!

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      • Yeah, I’m not sure what I’m in the mood for next but I know it needs to be something different! Like something set in a completely different time period and with completely different characters. Definitely something not as intense (but I feel like compared to A Little Life most things are less intense anyway).

        Oh man you’re making me really want to read it!! I’m definitely going to have to get my hands on it when I’m ready for something deep and dense again.

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      • I haven’t had the what to read after an intense book problem recently, but have definitely been looking for lighter stuff after reading a couple of dense idea-filled sci-fi books that weren’t really my thing. I’ve got Mackenzi Lee’s Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue from the library, so that’s up next!

        Awesome! I look forward to whenever you do decide to read the Lymond books! I’m thinking about taking a trip to Scotland and the North of England next summer, so I’ll probably re-read the series before then and possibly visit some of the places mentioned in the novels.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oooo I’ve been really looking forward to Gentleman’s Guide, so I’m interested to hear what what you’ll think of it! I’ve seen it all over the place and everyone seems to be liking it.

        Oh my gosh I hope you go to Scotland and Northern England next year, the UK is probably my favorite place. Have you been before? And visiting places in novels is definitely the best. I so want to go to NYC so I can stand on Lispenard St hahah.

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      • I’m only about 100 pages into Gentleman’s Guide, but so far I’m really enjoying it, and it’s an excellent antidote to the denser books I’ve been reading lately! I feel like YA historical is much more my genre than YA contemporary too, so I’m enjoying it more than I would the same story set in the present.

        I have! I love London and I always feel like I’ve left a piece of my heart there (I’ve been 3 times). Other than home, it’s my favourite city in the world. I’ve only been to Scotland and the north really briefly though. I was in Edinburgh only for maybe 3 days? I did really enjoy it, but that was in 2011, before I’d read my beloved Lymond so clearly I need to go back, and I’d love to see more of Scotland. And in the north I’ve only been to Hull (I found William Wilberforce a really interesting historical person and went to visit the museum, and the submarium), but I’d love to spend more time in the North and hit York especially. The goal is to get to York Minster to see the church that opens Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell as well, as the Lymond places in Edinburgh and along the England-Scotland border.

        I’m actually going to New York in about a month on vacation to take in some shows! I’ve been before and it’s a really fun city to visit (especially for anyone into theatre).I hadn’t even considered Lispenard Street though… I might have to look that up!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think half of my interest in Gentlemen’s Guide comes from the fact that it’s not set in the present. I’m super intrigued!

        Ahhhh I love York! I studied abroad in Leeds, which is up North and about an hour from York so I visited twice, and it’s one of the most wonderful cities I’ve been to. Some of the buildings are super old and close together and it feels like you’re walking through Diagon Alley. And York Minster is fantastic. I love London and Edinburgh as well, and I stayed in Edinburgh for a week and a half two years ago and really got to explore it. I just love the UK so much. It always seems to live up to how magical it is in books.

        That sounds so fun! I’ve been to NYC a few times but have only ever seen two shows, and one was a really really terrible off Broadway one (but I saw it for free so I wasn’t mad), but I’d love to see more. I did see Les Mis and Phantom of the Opera in London though, which were definitely my favorites.

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  3. Thanks for sharing – I thoroughly enjoyed the book and your review. “Excruciating” is right on point, and there were many times that I needed to take a break from it all. I also thought it was relentless, one wave after another of grief and heartache. But it was something I could not put down, despite knowing the ending…

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  8. ahhhh i just finished this book two days ago and im still recovering from it??and i totally agree with you that this book lived up to and went beyond all the hype surrounding it.
    also “Has a character ever pained my heart more than Jude St. Francis?? I don’t know why I’m even asking this question, because the answer is no.” that is just the truest thing i have ever heard ahahah.
    i think about what Harold wrote on the last page of the book and i still tear up a little.
    anyways thanks for sharing this! i’m going to do a pingback of your post on my own review if you don’t mind. x

    Liked by 1 person

    • I won’t mind if you link my review at all!! The more A Little Life love the better, in my opinion, and I’d love to read your review! I finished this book about a month ago now and I’m still now over it, but the whole week after I finished I felt so raw, so I can imagine how you’re feeling!
      Just thinking about the last page gave me chills, and I know if I keep thinking too hard on it I’ll start to tear up, haha. Just picturing the two of them standing there on Lispenard Street reminiscing without Willem there HURTS SO MUCH. ALL is one one of my favorite books ever now even though it ripped my heart to shreds.

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