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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life (2015)

by Hanya Yanagihara

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2,0651503,216 (4.12)1 / 187
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Showing 1-5 of 140 (next | show all)
A very sad story which centers around a group of four friends who first meet as young men. ( )
  SarahStenhouse | Nov 5, 2017 |
This review may contain spoilers because I am still suffering. Also: general trigger warning for discussions of self-harm and abuse throughout this whole review.

How do I describe this book? I initially heard about it because I read The Goldfinch and craved a similar experience, because apparently my "type" for adult books is long, crushingly depressing works of literary fiction and I have heard people saying that it was the most depressing book they had ever read. Well, they aren't wrong. A Little Life is just over 700 pages of pain, trauma, and bleakness, punctuated with moments of happiness and friendship that are that much more beautiful. It starts out as a post-college book and spans decades.

Firstly, Jude St. Francis, who deserved so, so much more than he got. Jude is a talented lawyer, a mathematician, fiercely intelligent and talented at many things, and yet his childhood contains unimaginable horror and trauma that stains his adult life. I have a strong stomach, but Jude's childhood is incredibly brutal, so much that I had to pause reading at several points because it was so horrific. Addendum and spoilers:Okay this really doesn't pertain to the book but I had to say it somewhere but I have a character named Jude in a project I've been working on who has survived CSA and self-injured like what the fuck I swear I didn't know anything about Jude St. Francis beforehand okay I'm done. Jude is an incredibly well-written character, a mystery (even to readers), and so realistic. While he has repercussions from severe trauma, he's successful in his career and his life otherwise. He's independent to a fault, cares fiercely about his friends, responsible, intelligent - yet believes himself irreparably broken by his childhood to the point where he finds it difficult to trust people and is constantly self-destructive, sad, and believes he is undeserving of everything he has. Jude self-harms, constantly, throughout the novel, and the reasoning behind it is explained very well; I do hope it makes people take self-injury more seriously (rather than a "teenage-girl thing"). It hurts to see how little regard he has for his own well-being. His life is bleak, and his character frequently reflects that, with black humour and his behaviours, but it's not all bad - the relationships Jude makes in his adult life are what shine through in the novel.

Initially, the novel claims to focus on Jude and his three friends: JB, Malcom, and Willem, and while they do remain friends for life, the relationships that stood out to me are the ones with his doctor, Andy Contractor; his adoptive father, Harold Stein; and Willem. I will talk about Willem last, because, well, if you've read it.... Andy is Jude's daughter and becomes an important friend in his life, keeping Jude's secrets but also trying to help him. I did find Andy somewhat irresponsible as a doctor, but as a friend, it's clear that Andy mattered to Jude and vice versa. I loved Andy as a character. He was tough love, but cared immensely about Jude. Harold ... oh, gosh, Harold makes me so happy - he loves his son. He loves his son unconditionally; he cares so, so much, even though Jude is a mystery to him. He was the father that Jude deserved to have as a child. A few nights ago, I dreamed about Harold adopting Jude as a child and woke up crying. The one scene that overwhelmingly broke my heart in this book was near the end, when Jude is refusing to eat and trying and trying to get Harold and Julia to hate him, to hit him, but Harold instead wraps his arms around Jude as he cries - "cries for the shame and joy of finally getting to be a child" - and the whole spiel that comes after - it's so poignant, so brutally bittersweet, and I ache every time I think of it.

Finally, Willem. Willem is simple, plain in his motivations, but at the same time he has so much depth to him. He cares for his friends, he cares for Jude, and he wants to be an actor. Willem is hardworking and kind and selfless, and such a good guy in general. Willem and Jude's relationship was incredible. It was romantic without the romance; it was deep, close friendship that felt closer than anything I've ever seen in books before. Of course, they're not perfect. This part is called "The Happy Years," but I've never felt fucking sadder than I have while reading it. While Willem and Jude love each other unconditionally, Jude's traumatic past makes it difficult for intimacy. Jude forces himself to endure sex because he believes that Willem will leave him otherwise, and it's heartbreaking. This leads to an increase in Jude's cutting, and some of the most fucking painful scenes I've read in my life. Willem catching Jude in the act of cutting himself and trying to make Jude understand how he feels by cutting his own chest was one of the scenes I had to stop reading because it hurt so much. They both make mistakes - terrible ones - but Jude and Willem are both mature enough to resolve it. When Willem and Jude finally connect, and Jude opens up to Willem, they come to an understanding between them and become closer than ever. Despite Jude's amputated legs and Willem's changed career, for a moment, you truly believe that these chapters are the happy years - Jude is happy, Willem is happy, Jude is getting more comfortable around Willem, both physically and psychologically. It's truly a breath of fresh air in the midst of a book otherwise full of pain.


I threw the book across the room and had to lie down because I was hyperventilating/sobbing so much. I kicked it. I screamed at it - "Why would you do this to me?" I ended up on the couch with my mom, through hyperventilating sobs, repeating, "I don't want to read this book anymore.
I don't want to read this book anymore." I have never before felt so brutalized by a single page.
It took me half an hour to calm down enough to pick up the book. The poor thing's spine fell off (it has definitely been thrown across a room before).


Willem. I can't hear his name without my heart breaking all over again. I watched Game of Thrones the other day, and someone said "Willem!" desperately, and I began sobbing all over again.
Willem and Jude deserved so, so much more, and Hanya is mean.

Hanya Yanagihara really pulls out all the stops in her descriptions. Her writing is wonderful; it's beautiful, descriptive, and absolutely brutal. She doesn't hide anything - not the details of Jude's past, and many of the more gory or violent scenes are described in direct, straightforward bluntness. Monks lighting Jude's, who was a SMALL CHILD, hand on fire for stealing something. Caleb's brutal abuse of Jude for being disabled. Jude's wounds on his leg, especially towards the amputation, and how his skin is beginning to rot.And Jude's frequent self-harming was brutal in its descriptions as well from the very first scene where we find out about it, is described in a way that would make most people's stomachs turn. Me, personally, I'm a bit desensitized, but Jude lighting his fucking arm on fire got me. It's truly horrific, what Jude goes through, and Yanagihara really drives it in with her writing.

And yet - Yanagihara manages to capture the beauty in Jude's life as well. Here's a really incredible quote that made me tear up: "The word 'friend' was so vague, so undescriptive and unsatisfying ... And so they had chosen another, more familiar form of relationship, one that hadn't worked. But now they were inventing their own type of relationship, one that wasn't officially recognized by history or immortalized in poetry or song, but which felt truer and less constraining. My point is: everything is described so well, and while it initially A Little Life can be slow as it explores the typical lives of Willem, JB, and Malcolm, Jude's narration (and Harold's) is a step up from the first part of the book. This book is long, and rambling, and it's absolutely beautiful. Everything feels so real - the places, the characters, the emotions.

A tl;dr/conclusion, of sorts: I wouldn't recommend this book for everyone, especially people who might trigger easily. There's just about every horrible traumatic thing imaginable - self-injury, suicide, rape, abuse in all its forms, towards children and adults; and what mitigates the bad things isn't anything grand or special, it's the characters and how good some people can be. It's awful in how terrible Jude's life is, but beautiful in its celebration of friendship, found families, and deep, unconditionally loving relationships. It's a book that will shake you to your core and leave you thinking about it long after you've closed it. ( )
  jwmchen | Nov 4, 2017 |
Jude, the improbable main character of A Little Life is, on the surface, the perfect man. Tall and handsome, with beautiful green eyes, he's a successful corporate lawyer, a gourmet chef, a talented pianist with a fine singing voice, a swimmer who gets in two miles every day, and a mathematician who earned a master's degree at MIT while simultaneously attending an Ivy League law school. Moreover, Jude is deeply loved by his friends, despite his reticence around them. But Jude harbors dark secrets from his horrific past, and engages in self-destructive behavior to ease the pain. He refuses to see a therapist, no matter how much his codependent physician friend begs and pleads. Eventually, the loss of his best friend, who had renounced his heterosexuality in order to become Jude's lover, is too much for Jude, and his urges catch up with him.

A Little Life has garnered much praise and won several awards, but at over 800 pages it is way too long for the story it is trying to tell. There are lots of descriptions of fabulous apartments, exotic vacations, and dinner parties, as well as descriptions of unspeakable abuse. Jude's friends' continued fascination with the suffering lawyer doesn't seem plausible. Jude is a steadily-sucking black hole of emotional need, but he never seems to do anything for his self-sacrificing friends in return.

By the end, I felt as if I had taken a long journey with a person I didn't particularly like. ( )
  akblanchard | Oct 15, 2017 |
This book is probably one of my favorites ever :) ( )
  johnharry123 | Oct 8, 2017 |
Potentially great book, spoiled by being over long, and not had enough tight editing. Many other readers told me to perserver through the first 100 pages, and thank goodness they did because it was very tedious and i would have given up.
After that it opened out into a fascinating novel if over long. Some readers would find the details of childhood sexual abuse hard to read. Quite self-indulgent writing. I wondered on what basis knowledge the author wrote the book. As a woman writing about gay/straight men it seemed ok, but others may take a different view. BTW I absolutely HATED the cover picture, it didn't do the book any favours. ( )
  herschelian | Oct 6, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 140 (next | show all)
I'm still talking about A Little Life. It's deeply upsetting, but I think it's a wonderfull story in the end.
added by Sylak | editStylist [Issue 338], Paula Hawkins (Oct 12, 2016)
Hanya Yanagihara schrijft in Een klein leven duidelijk voor haar lezer, ze manipuleert je met perfect getimede overgangen: van feel good naar feel bad en terug. Alle personages hebben maar één eigenschap, het zijn sjablonen. Ergerlijk. En toch weet het boek iets te raken.
In the end, her novel is little more than a machine designed to produce negative emotions for the reader to wallow in—unsurprisingly, the very emotions that, in her Kirkus Reviews interview, she listed as the ones she was interested in, the ones she felt men were incapable of expressing: fear, shame, vulnerability. Both the tediousness of A Little Life and, you imagine, the guilty pleasures it holds for some readers are those of a teenaged rap session, that adolescent social ritual par excellence, in which the same crises and hurts are constantly rehearsed.
Je kunt je afvragen waarom de mensen rond Jude St. Francis zoveel kunnen houden van iemand die hen steeds weer door de vingers glipt, die zijn geschiedenis verborgen houdt en die een bron is van zorgen en frustraties. Tot je merkt dat je zelf die liefde bent gaan voelen, inclusief de angst die erbij hoort. Het verraadt dat in A Little Life iets wezenlijks wordt aangeraakt.
added by Jozefus | editNRC Handelsblad, Auke Hulst (Sep 14, 2015)
Yanagihara’s success in creating a deeply afflicted protagonist is offset by placing him in a world so unrealized it almost seems allegorical, with characters so flatly drawn they seem more representative of people than the actual thing. This leaves the reader, at the end, wondering if she has been foolish for taking seriously something that was merely a contrivance all along.
added by ozzer | editNew York Times, Carol Anshaw (Mar 30, 2015)
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Information from the Dutch Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
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To Jared Hohlt
in friendship; with love
First words
The eleventh apartment had only one closet, but it did have a sliding glass door that opened onto a small balcony, from which he could see a man sitting across the way, outdoors in only a T-shirt and shorts even though it was October, smoking.
Information from the Dutch Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
"I know you're tired," Brother Luke had said. "It's normal; you're growing. It's tiring work, growing. And I know you work hard. But Jude, when you're with your clients, you have to show a little life; they're paying to be with you, you know – you have to show them you're enjoying it."

De verwijzing naar de titel van het boek is in de Nederlandse vertaling verdwenen:

'Ik weet dat je moe bent,' had broeder Luke gezegd. 'Dat is normaal; je bent in de groei. Groeien is een vermoeiende klus. En ik weet dat je hard werkt. Maar Jude, als je met je klanten bent, moet je wel een beetje energiek zijn; ze betalen ervoor om met je naar bed te gaan, weet je… Je moet ze laten zien dat je het fijn vindt.'
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385539258, Hardcover)

Brace yourself for the most astonishing, challenging, upsetting, and profoundly moving book in many a season. An epic about love and friendship in the twenty-first century that goes into some of the darkest places fiction has ever traveled and yet somehow improbably breaks through into the light. Truly an amazement—and a great gift for its publisher.
When 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.
In rich and resplendent prose, Yanagihara has fashioned a tragic and transcendent hymn to brotherly love, a masterful depiction of heartbreak, and a dark examination of the tyranny of memory and the limits of human endurance.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:57 -0400)

"When 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 ... Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is [their center of gravity] Jude, ... 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"--Amazon.com.… (more)

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