A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Profound Exploration of Trauma and Friendship: A Review of “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara

This book will destroy you.

It’s simultaneously the most beautiful and horrific book I’ve ever read. Hands down the best book I’ve ever read, yet I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

Why? There’s really no words that can fully explain the gut-wrenching heart ache this book will instill upon you.

If you’re on TikTok (which I’m a little too old for but hey, to each their own), you may have gotten sucked into the loop of videos where people documented their reading journey for A Little Life. Those videos of people sobbing uncontrollably don’t even do the anguish you’ll feel reading this book justice.

If you’re anything like my husband, you may be wondering “but what’s the point of reading something so sad?”

I’m sure there’s a psychological reason why some of us love a good sad story. Heck, my therapist once told me if I’m not scheduling crying sessions on the regular that I needed to. She even asked me if I had a book or movie that would give me a good cry. Oh yes, yes I do.

I mean.. I cried so hard reading this book I had an asthma attack. No joke.

Sure, that was toward the end. But there wasn’t one chapter in this entire book where I didn’t cry. (Except maybe at the very beginning when everyone was getting introduced but even then, I remember tearing up pretty early on).

And while I can’t pretend for a minute that this book didn’t completely obliterate my heart.. it also put it back together in the most beautiful way.

I know (and still have to remind myself) that Jude is not a real person. But I walked away from this story feeling such deep emotions for him, and for Harold. Oh Harold!

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A Little Life Trigger Warnings

I think it’s only fair that before we get too deep into this review that I mention the trigger warnings surrounding this book. Big red flags on almost all 720 pages. These also may be seen as spoilers so continue reading at your own risk.

These trigger warnings include: abuse, sexual abuse, trauma, violence, abandonment, betrayal, brutality, self-harm, suicidal ideations, suicide, child death, And honestly I may be forgetting a few.

What is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara About?

At a glance, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is a novel that follows the intertwined lives of four college friends living in New York City.

On a deeper level, it’s really a staggering exploration of human suffering, resilience, and the power of friendship.

At its heart, the novel follows the journey of Jude St. Francis, a complex character whose past is shrouded in darkness and whose present is a constant battle against the demons that haunt him.

Early on, it becomes clear to the reader that Jude is battling a physical disability. One in which his friends are quick to champion around him. Jude is quite clearly the glue that holds the group together.

Throughout each chapter, Yanagihara develops these characters and paints a portrait of pain and endurance that is both harrowing and deeply moving.

The novel’s exploration of trauma is at times, too much; yet Yanagihara imbues her narrative with moments of grace and tenderness that offer glimmers of hope amidst the darkness.

One of the most compelling aspects of A Little Life is its portrayal of friendship as a lifeline in the face of adversity, along with identify, self-acceptance, and trauma.

Jude’s journey towards self-understanding and self-compassion is central to the narrative, as he grapples with the legacy of abuse and abandonment that has shaped his life.

Through Jude’s experiences, Yanagihara confronts the reader with extremely uncomfortable, at times physically sickening, truths about the nature of suffering and the resilience of the human spirit.

Despite its heavy subject matter, A Little Life is ultimately a testament to the power of love, resilience, and the human capacity for empathy.

Yanagihara’s masterful storytelling and deeply empathetic characters linger in the mind long after the final page is turned, leaving a profound and indelible impression.

I finished this book months ago, and I still think about it not quite daily, but a few times throughout the week.

It has to be said.. this novel is not for the faint of heart. If you do decide to give it a try, please research the trigger warnings that accompany this book; there are many. And if, after everything, you find yourself opening the cover and starting page one.. know that it’s okay to feel all the things you’re about to feel. Take breaks, walk away for a bit, and clear your head.

This is one that will leave readers forever changed by the beauty and brutality of its narrative.

A Little Life Characters

Jude St. Francis:
Jude is the central character of the novel, a litigator with a traumatic past. Orphaned as a child and subjected to severe abuse, Jude carries physical and emotional scars into adulthood. Despite his professional success and close friendships, he struggles with self-worth and self-harm.

Willem Ragnarsson:
Willem is Jude’s best friend and an aspiring actor. He comes from a modest background and is deeply compassionate. Willem’s relationship with Jude is one of the emotional anchors of the novel, showcasing his loyalty, love, and the challenges they face together.

JB Marion:
JB is a talented and charismatic artist, known for his bold personality. He is one of Jude’s close friends from college. JB’s journey explores themes of ambition, addiction, and the complexities of friendship and identity.

Malcolm Irvine:
Malcolm is an architect and another close friend of Jude’s from college. Coming from a wealthy family, Malcolm’s character grapples with privilege, expectations, and his own personal growth. He is often seen as the stabilizing force in the group of friends.

Harold Stein:
Harold is a law professor who becomes a father figure to Jude. Harold’s character represents hope, kindness, and the possibility of healing through family.

Julia Altman:
Julia is Harold’s wife. She is warm, supportive, and deeply caring. Julia’s presence in Jude’s life symbolizes stability.

Andy Contractor:
Andy is Jude’s physician and friend, who provides medical care and emotional support. He is one of the few people aware of the full extent of Jude’s physical and psychological struggles. Andy’s character highlights themes of loyalty, compassion, and the limits of friendship in the face of immense pain.

While there are many other characters throughout this book, these characters form the core group around Jude, each contributing to the novel’s exploration of trauma, friendship, and the search for belonging.

A Little Life Quotes

“He was damaged, but not beyond repair. He deserved love, even if he didn’t believe it himself.”

A Little Life

“You can’t save people, you can only love them.”

A Little Life

“And so I try to be kind to everything I see, and in everything I see, I see him”

Harold, A Little Life

“You won’t understand what I mean now, but someday you will: the only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.”

A Little Life

“…things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”

A Little Life

But what was happiness but an extravagance, an impossible state to maintain, partly because it was so difficult to articulate?”

A Little Life

“And he cries and cries, cries for everything he has been, for everything he might have been, for every old hurt, for every old happiness, cries for the shame and joy of finally getting to be a child, with all of a child’s whims and wants and insecurities, for the privilege of behaving badly and being forgiven, for the luxury of tenderness, of fondness, of being served a meal and being made to eat it, for the ability, at last, at last, of believing a parent’s reassurances, of believing that to someone he is special despite all his mistakes and hatefulness, because of all his mistakes and hatefulness.”

A Little Life

“I know my life’s meaningful because” – and here he stopped, and looked shy, and was silent for a moment before he continued – ” because I’m a good friend. I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.”

A Little Life

Why I Give A Little Life 5 Stars

Yes, this book is the most devastating thing I’ve ever read. Yes, it made me sick, sad, and at times I felt like I shouldn’t read it any further.

But the thing I kept coming back to was this (and I’m going to do my best to try and explain this in a way that doesn’t contain any spoilers).

For how much darkness is in this book. For how much devastation, disgust, and utter sadness. There were also so many moments of light. Yanagihara’s ability to craft such a beautiful sentence in the middle of heartache is one that I truly only believe the greatest of the great writers can do.

And I hate, hate hate hate that this story is a reality for some. It breaks my heart even further and makes me want to DO something. Makes me want to get involved somewhere, somehow, and put an end to these types of things. Or to be there for those who have to endure such kinds of pain.

And it also reminded me, throughout feeling all these feels.. that you never, ever know what someone has gone through, or is currently going through. “And so I try to be kind to everything I see, and in everything I see, I see him.” – Harold.

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