A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: A True Reading Experience

FictionA Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara
Released March 10, 2015
737 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: eGalley provided by the publisher via NetGalley

Plot Summary

Spanning 30 years, the story of four male friends (Willem, J.B., Malcolm, and Jude) trying to make their way in New York City while dealing with the implications of Jude’s tragic childhood.

My Thoughts

I confess that I had no idea what I was getting into when I started A Little Life. I basically thought it was going to be a male version of The Interestings. And, there are similarities, but A Little Life is much, much darker. It’s disturbing, harrowing, relentless, and powerful, but also portrays a strong, hopeful version of friendship. The writing is absolutely gorgeous (future “Quotable Books” post?!) and it will most likely end up on my Best Books of 2015 list come December (click here for last year’s list).

There is nothing little about A Little Life. In fact, it’s such a sprawling book that I had trouble distilling my thoughts into a coherent review. Yanagihara threw the kitchen sink at this thing, but she made everything work together seamlessly. To varying degrees, she addressed class, race, sexuality, disability, life purpose / career, secrets, mental issues, and abuse…all overlaid on a foundation of enduring friendship. And, she made all this seem harmoniously complex instead of frustratingly complicated.

The lifeblood of this novel is the characters. The four friends met in college, come from disparate backgrounds, and have varying life ambitions. The beginning of the book focuses on introducing each character in bits and pieces (hint: keep a list of key background information on each character as you learn it, because it’s hard to keep them straight initially). As the story goes on, Jude becomes the focal point. He’s kind, heartbreaking, proud, tough, and maddening. He’s a character unlike any other I’ve encountered in fiction and will stick with me for a long time.

I realize that this review is a bit light on plot details and that’s intentional. Part of the reading experience, and this book truly is an experience, is peeling back the layers of the characters and gradually understanding what’s shaped who they are. Rather, I think the best way to convey the essence of this book is to share the author’s thoughts on her writing experience…because I sort of felt the same way reading the book.

For one thing, the experience of writing this book was so depleting, so exhausting, so unexpectedly life-altering—as pretentious as that sounds—that I’m still extricating myself from its universe. – Hanya Yanagihara, Slate Magazine

Well, I’m still extricating myself and I finished it almost a week ago! A Little Life so consumed me that I had to follow it with a “recovery book” before reading anything else remotely serious.

As you can probably guess, A Little Life is definitely not for everyone. It’s a great choice for people who appreciate consuming, emotional reading experiences (me!). But, I would avoid it if you prefer the lighter, happier stuff. In addition to being a possible contender for my Best Books of 2015 list, A Little Life is also going on my Time to Kill List.

You May Also Like:

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

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  1. I snagged a copy of this from Netgalley the other day and I’m so excited to read it. 😀 Thanks for being light on the details because I really enjoy going into a book knowing very little. I can’t tell you how much I love deep, emotional, heavy books. I have a good feeling about this one.

    Posted 3.11.15 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      Well, then this is definitely the one for you! And, me too…I’ve lately been feeling like way too many details are out there…even in the official marketing blurbs.

      Posted 3.11.15 Reply
  2. Diane wrote:

    I just wish I could have a full day to myself to dive in. I stRted it at lunch yesterday, but only read 3% before it was time to get back to work:)

    I checked out your Time to Kill list and saw all of the Follets, which I loved, and also Shantaram– loved it.

    Posted 3.11.15 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      I had the same problem with this one – my lifestyle lends itself to reading in rarely more than 30 minute increments. And this is one that begs for a full afternoon cuddled by the fire.

      Posted 3.11.15 Reply
  3. Now you’ve got my attention with this one. I shied away from it before because of the cover. Does the pained expression on this guy’s face make sense to you now that you’ve read it? At first glance, I thought it was a memoir.

    Posted 3.11.15 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      Absolutely! It was a fun guessing game in the very beginning to figure out which character the cover man was supposed to be, but it’s pretty obvious the farther you read.

      Posted 3.11.15 Reply
  4. I read the summary and immediately thought “male Interestings”… then laughed out loud when you wrote it in the next paragraph! Fabulous review, Sarah. I’ll read this soon.

    Posted 3.11.15 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      Haha! It ended up being very very different from The Interestings…

      Posted 3.11.15 Reply
  5. I’ve not heard a bad review of this book yet. I can’t wait to get to it. Thanks.

    Posted 3.11.15 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      Me neither 🙂

      Posted 3.11.15 Reply
  6. I kept a list of the characters at the beginning, too! You’re right that they are hard to keep straight for a little while.

    This is such a hard book to write about — both because it has so many layers and because you don’t want to give anything away — but this is a great review!

    Posted 3.11.15 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      Phew – thank you! I was stressing about how much to reveal (or not).

      I had a little chart with career, race, sexual orientation, background/family, etc boxes that I’d fill in as details were revealed…yes, I realize that makes me a huge loser! Haha!

      Posted 3.11.15 Reply
  7. It’s been great to start reading Yanagihara’s interviews about the book – I feel like she’s confirmed so many of my feelings! So glad this one was a great experience for you.

    Posted 3.11.15 Reply
  8. Yay! What a great review, Sarah! Thanks so much for sharing your experience of this novel; I’m very intrigued.

    Posted 3.11.15 Reply
  9. Susan wrote:

    It seems like a journey. but I think I would like it. Dark is good. The length seems a bit intimidating but maybe I can get over that …

    Posted 3.24.15 Reply
  10. Frank wrote:


    Discovered your blog today when I read your review of “A Little Life” on Amazon.
    I LOVE your blog, everything about it from your reviews to the way it is organized and I am totally amazed at how many of your Best Books of All-Time are also on mine. Even the books you read each year match mine and if I have not read them, most are on my TBR list. Anyway, keep up the good work and I will certainly check back from time to time to see what I should be reading.

    Posted 3.30.15 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      Wow – thank you for your kind comments! And glad to hear we have so many favorites in common 🙂 Please continue to check in – you can follow Sarah’s Book Shelves on Facebook or Twitter to get updates of new posts if you’d like.

      Posted 3.30.15 Reply
  11. Wow, you said it all so much better, and so much more coherently 🙂 Like I said in another post, I was reEling after reading this.

    PS. I hope you don’t think I snagged your line “There is nothing little about A Little Life” as I had a similar thought because of the title.

    Posted 4.1.15 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      Ha! No – not at all! It’s kind of an obvious line 🙂

      Posted 4.2.15 Reply
  12. Steven Reds wrote:

    You said this is a dark novel, harrowing, disturbing. It is also lengthy and emotional. I enjoy these type of reads (too). I am reminded by your review of another lengthy, emotional and harrowing novel, Pat Conroy’s “Beach Music” (which I loved, I consumed with all its emotional upheaval and wonderful writing). What are the similarities, if any?

    Posted 10.27.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      I agree – it’s definitely lengthy and emotional! I loved Beach Music…but it’s been so long since I read it that the details are hazy. I try to re-read a Pat Conroy book every couple of years and Beach Music is next on my list. I did The Great Santini and Lords of Discipline a couple years ago.

      Posted 10.27.16 Reply

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