[Review] A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

Black and white book with photo of man's tightened face on cover held up in front of apartments buildings on a snowy street

(Find it HERE.)

Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm meet during their freshman year of university, and luckily the friendship lasts a lifetime–through failures, successes, relationships, jobs, deaths and heartbreak. They’re a motley crew–all different races, classes and sexualities–but the main character is Jude, the shyest and most secretive of the crew, tortured by an unspeakable past but determined to succeed despite it. The book is mostly about how the hideous demons of Jude’s past keep him from fully recognizing the angels of his present. (There were times when he’d do something and I’d sigh out loud and say “Oh, Jude, why?”–and then a character in the book would echo me somewhere on the next page.) He’s a tortured, fragile character who makes terrible decisions most of the time, and were he not surrounded by such believably loving friends and family he’d be very difficult to like but much easier to pity. As it is, you understand why he’s so tormented but can’t stop hoping he’ll give it all up and accept his many possibilities for happiness. He never really does, sadly.

This book is a lot, and it deserves every content warning and tear-filled review it’s received. I haven’t been so nauseated by descriptions of child abuse since I read Tampa and that says a lot. I also haven’t been so touched by portrayals of male friendship since–well, ever, really. Jude is a mess and his life is relentlessly horrifying–first outwardly, then inwardly–but his friends and the way they change and shift to accommodate every iteration of each other is lovingly rendered. Their larger social circles are just as well-realized, and one of the most startling things about this book is how it seamlessly immerses the reader into nearly 40 years of community life in New York City without ever referencing typical “New York” things or even defining the time period. You really feel like you’re living along with these people, walking day by day through their little lives in a big city.

This book deserved all of the prize nominations and accolades it received and then some. While it’s not quite the Great Gay American Novel it often gets described as, it does contain a few remarkably sensitive story elements involving the fluidity of sexuality over a lifetime, and it decenters romantic relationships as the be-all and end-all of everyone’s life–these men have an enduring group friendship that coexists with their romantic relationships healthily, which is hard to do in life and harder to depict on the page without Mary-Sue-ing the characters irrevocably. Their levels of closeness shift, they sometimes don’t talk and sometimes the relationships change in surprising ways–but their friendship forms the foundation of their lives in a way that their successful careers and romances don’t. The diversity of the characters is also admirable, in a way that seems natural for New York and America in general. Of the main foursome, only Willem is white, and he’s the child of first generation immigrants, which goes a long way towards explaining how he fits in so well with the other four. Race and sexuality are both handled so effortlessly and without any weird performative overtones in this book and I personally appreciated that almost as much as its loving take on the importance of lifelong adult friendships.

That said, I recognized that in the hands of a lesser writer, the main events of this book are so graphic that it would be trash-lit at best. Fortunately Yanagihara is an excellent writer and that elevates the often sordid events described–but they can still be a bit much. (When I reached the scene that the title of the book comes from, I actually had to put it down for a few days and go read a romance novel.) It’s beautiful, it’s immersive, but it’s also deeply troubled and you should be ready for that if you choose to read it.⠀⠀

4 stars and a deep, sad sigh to A Little Life.

(Beautiful people, if you feel moved to buy this book, considered heading to my Bookshop storefront and purchasing it there. If you do, a commission will be earned because we have an affiliate relationship with them and other sites. Peace!)

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