A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little LifeThings 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.
from A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

So I’m gonna admit right now that I picked up A Little Life mostly because people kept talking about how sad it was. It was kind of like a jalapeño pepper eating contest to me. I wanted to see if it was really as sad as people said it was and if I could take it. I know. It was a bit of a strange impulse. Maybe I thought it would make me a stronger person.

Short story: yep, it’s a pretty sad book. The saddest book I’ve ever read? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s pretty high up there. I think what really brings it up to the top of that list is the level of hopelessness that just sort of hangs over the whole thing and over the main character Jude.

Jude is a messed up person. Pitted against other troubled protagonists of literary fiction he would win prizes for Worst Childhood, Worst PTSD, and Worst Self-Esteem with absolutely zero question. So where’s the story? Well, Yanagihara is really skilled at creating the world of Jude’s friends around him. She develops out his best friends Willem, JB, and Malcom, as well as several other characters who basically spend their lives trying to save Jude from the ghosts of his horrific past.

One of the reasons that this book spoke to me despite being incredibly heavy was that I do know Jude. It’s real that some people have turned inward on themselves with such violent self-hatred and a fear of being close to others that simply getting through a day is near-impossible at times. Having an author really illustrate this character in such a relentless way I think actually helped me better understand the people in my life who struggle with similar demons, even if those demons come from different places.

I don’t want to say too much more, because a lot of this book is about how much information Yanagihara lets you have access to and when. You don’t get to learn about Jude’s past until she says you can, and even then you only get parts of the story until nearly the end of the book. But I will say that I appreciated the fullness of this book, that it truly tried to capture a life in all of its torturous complexities, pains, and simple joys.

I’m very curious to read her other novel, The People in the Trees, which I’ve heard is actually pretty different from A Little Life, but I’ll definitely need to take a long breather first.

4Stars24/5 stars

See a full list of my book reviews here and my book review policy here.


  1. To me, the sadness of Jude’s backstory was over the top. I could see that she wanted to write a story about how trauma can be too much for a person to continue wanting to live — and I’d be totally in to read that story! — but it seemed like she wanted to do it without actually engaging in what trauma and its fallout look like to real humans. Like nobody has that backstory. It’s silly. It’s silly! I wanted this book to be painful, and I kept thinking “BUT THIS IS SILLY WITH ALL THE MONKS AND SUCH.”

    The People in the Trees is terrific, by the way. I crazy stupid loved it.

    1. It did seem to me like the Jude’s backstory was pretty crazy horrific. I would only hope that there’s not too many people in life who’ve experienced an entire childhood like that. It would be really interesting to see the book from the perspective of someone with more “average” trauma for sure.

      Thanks for letting me know about The People in the Trees — I’ll add it to my reading list for sure!

  2. I’ve seen people talking about this book as well and until I just saw “a novel” on the cover, I thought it was an autobiography. I’m trying to avoid buying anymore downers. I have enough of them in my home library to last a lifetime, literally. I’m taking feel-good recs if you have any!

    1. It does look like the kind of book that could be an autobiography! I’d definitely give it some time if you’re not looking to read anymore downers. I read Hyperbole and a Half recently which was a pretty light, funny read. I’ll let you know if I think of anything else!

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