|Cover artist||Peter Hujar (photo)|
Cardon Webb (design)
|March 10th, 2015|
|LC Class||PS3625.A674 L58 2015|
A Little Life follows a chronological narrative with flashbacks frequently interspersed throughout. The novel's narrative perspectives shift throughout the story's progression. During the beginning of the novel, a third-person omniscient perspective privileging the thoughts of Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm is employed. As the story gradually shifts its focus towards Jude, its perspective progressively molds entirely around each character's interactions with Jude and the experiences of Jude himself. This literary perspective is punctuated by first-person narratives told by an older Harold, nine years in the future.
The book is divided into seven parts:
- Lispenard Street
- The Postman
- The Axiom of Equality
- The Happy Years
- Dear Comrade
- Lispenard Street
The novel focuses on the lives of four friends: Jude St. Francis, a disabled genius with a mysterious past; Willem Ragnarsson, a kind, handsome man who aspires to be an actor; Malcolm Irvine, an architect working at a prestigious firm; and Jean-Baptiste "JB" Marion, a quick-witted painter who wants to make a name in the art world. The book follows their relationships changing under the influence of success, wealth, addiction, and pride.
The novel's main focus is the enigmatic lawyer, Jude. He suffers from a damaged spine which leaves him with a limp and excruciating pain in his legs that comes and goes. Unbeknownst to his friends, he also frequently self-harms, one such bout of cutting led Willem to take him to Andy Contractor, Jude's doctor and trusted friend. It is clear that he suffers from debilitating mental trauma from his childhood.
Despite this apparent closeness with his friends, Jude finds himself unable to divulge either detail of his past or current state of mind to his roommate. Nonetheless, he thrives in his law practice, and develops a close parent-child relationship with his former professor, Harold, and his wife Julia, which results in the pair adopting him when Jude turns thirty. While thankful, the time before the adoption is filled with further bouts of self-harm, as Jude believes he is inherently unworthy of affection. Meanwhile, the rest of the group finds success in their respective fields, with Willem becoming a star of theater and then film. JB finds success as an artist but also becomes addicted to crystal meth. The group stages an intervention, where JB mocks Jude by doing a crude imitation of his limp. In spite of successful treatment, and a great deal of apologizing, Jude finds it impossible to forgive JB. Willem refuses to forgive him too, causing the group to fragment, with only Malcolm remaining friends with all four members.
It becomes clear that Jude was sexually traumatized at a very young age, making it difficult for him to engage in romantic relationships. His friends and loved ones begin questioning this isolation as he enters his forties, with Willem especially being baffled with regard to Jude's sexuality. As his loneliness grows more intense, he enters an abusive relationship with fashion executive Caleb, who is disgusted by Jude's limp and his increasing use of a wheelchair. Jude finally breaks off the relationship after Caleb rapes him, and they meet a final time when Caleb follows him to dinner with Harold, humiliates him, and then follows Jude to his apartment, where he brutally beats and rapes him, leaving him for dead. Jude nonetheless refuses to report the incident to the police, believing he deserved it. Besides Harold, only Andy – Jude's doctor and ongoing confidante – knows the truth of the failed relationship.
Although Jude's body manages to heal, the rape causes him to flash back to his childhood, wherein he was raised in a monastery and repeatedly sexually assaulted by the brothers. He recalls a period when one of the brothers, Brother Luke, ran away with him, forcing him into years of child prostitution. After he was rescued by the police, Jude was placed in state care, where the abuse continued at the hands of the counselors there. After the break-up with Caleb brings back this childhood trauma, Jude finally decides to kill himself but survives the attempt. In the aftermath, Willem comes back home and begins to live with him. Jude continues to refuse therapy but begins to tell Willem the least traumatic stories about his childhood, which Willem finds disturbing and horrifying. The two soon begin a relationship, but Jude continues to struggle with opening up, and does not enjoy having sex with him.
In an attempt to curb his cutting, Jude decides to instead burn himself as a form of self-harm, but accidentally inflicts third-degree burns that require a skin graft. The wound is so severe that Andy tells him he has to tell Willem what happened, or else he will do it for him. Before Jude can tell Willem, Andy accidentally divulges the information. Willem is horrified but, after a difficult fight, Jude finally confesses that he does not enjoy sex, and tells Willem about the years of sexual and physical abuse he endured. Jude also reveals that he escaped state care at age 14 and hitchhiked, performing sexual acts as payment to drivers. He also explains to Willem that the damage to his legs was caused by a man called Dr. Traylor, who picked Jude up and held him captive while he cured him of venereal disease, assaulted him, and eventually ran him over with his car.
The relationship continues, with Willem sleeping with women (and not with Jude) for a while, until he eventually stops, due to a sense of guilt and uneasiness. The two settle into a comfortable life together, which is shaken when Jude's legs become worse, and he must reluctantly amputate. He manages to learn to walk again with his new prosthetics, and the pair enter a period of their life which Willem dubs "The Happy Years". However, while picking up Malcolm and his wife from the train station for a visit, Willem is involved in a car accident with a drunk driver, which kills all three occupants. With his close friend and lover dead, Jude descends once again into self-destructive habits, losing such an excessive amount of weight that his remaining loved ones stage another intervention. Though they are able to get him to gain weight and to attend therapy, years of depression and despair finally overtake Jude, and he takes his own life.
Happiness of having a home
JB was the only one with roots (a home) and he was able to spend a self-satisfied happy long life. Malcolm had cut his roots (leaving from home). Willem had weak roots (with a home he was not satisfied with). Jude had no roots and then found his roots with Harold and then after his friend's death, he was not even familiar with them. From the four friends, JB was the only one who had real roots and was the only one to have a long life.
A core focus of the novel is the evolution of the relationships between Jude, Willem, JB, Malcolm and Jude's adoptive father, Harold. Jude's life in particular is populated by men who love and care about him, as well as men that exploit and abuse him, and those who fall in the liminal spaces between the two categories. We see this directly from the moment that he follows Brother Luke into the greenhouse, as well as the moments in which he knew what he was doing in the motel rooms was wrong, but still had felt dedication and love for Luke since up until those moments in his life, he was the only person who was kind to him. The social and emotional lives of each male character are the fabric that weaves the novel together, creating an insular narrative bubble that provides few clues about the historical moment in which the story is situated.
Yanagihara confines the reader's perspective and emphasizes the examination of the distinct interior lives of each character and the people that populate and influence their lives. There are few women dispersed throughout the story, as a result, the novel can be considered a rumination on the strengths and the limits of romantic love, friendship, and relationships among men.
Despite the various iterations of relationships and attempts to connect with Jude, his existence is often stagnated by isolation and loneliness in dealing with trauma and pain. His few attempts to reach out and connect with others during his adult life manifest in the repetition of yet another cycle of sexual abuse and trauma – his relationship with Caleb. The flashbacks to his abusive experiences with Dr. Traylor, Brother Luke, and boy's home counselors demonstrate the moral and affective extremes of abuse and exploitation that he experiences. Yet the novel invites juxtaposition by way of narration from Harold who shows a father's unconditional benevolent love to his adopted son.
Trauma, recovery, and support
In an article written for New York Magazine, Yanagihara states that "one of the things [she] wanted to do with this book was create a protagonist who never got better… [for him] to begin healthy (or appear so) and end sick – both the main character and the plot itself". The first sixteen years of Jude's life, plagued by sexual, physical, and psychological abuse, continue to haunt him as he enters adulthood. His trauma directly affects his mental and physical health, relationships, beliefs, and the ways in which he navigates the world. He struggles to move beyond the damage the past has wrought upon his body and psyche.
To Ana, Jude's deceased case manager who predates the novel's beginning, Willem, and Jude's psychiatrist later in the novel, Jude divulges almost none of his past to those close to him. The failure to understand Jude's trauma is a constant point of tension in the novel, as well as the subsequent frustration that stems from his inability to build mutual networks of support among his friends and family. Jude's friends, including Andy, are constantly plagued by doubts about the ethical choices such as allowing Jude to live independently while harboring the knowledge of his physically self-destructive behavior. Throughout the novel, Jude constantly apologizes for his actions and for the inability to take the help that would be given to him.
The story is built on the care and service that Jude elicits from a circle of supporters who fight to protect him from his self-destructive ways; truly, there are newborns envious of the devotion he inspires. The loyalty can be mortifying for the reader, who is conscripted to join in, as a witness to Jude's unending mortifications. Can we so easily invest in this walking chalk outline, this vivified DSM entry? With the trauma plot, the logic goes: evoke the wound and we will believe that a body, a person, has borne it.
Chronic pain and disability
A Little Life depicts the everyday experience of living with trauma, chronic pain, and disability, demonstrating the inherent intersections with one another. As a direct result of Dr. Traylor running him over with a car, Jude's spinal injuries have long-term health effects that trouble him for the rest of his life. He is prone to episodes of intense pain due to severed nerves in his back, lesions forming on his legs, and has difficulty walking. His insistent inclination towards independence manifests in the ways he constantly resists and fights his body as it breaks down with age, despite numerous treatments and surgeries. Jude continually attempts to take control of his body and his emotions by self-harming. His life is structured around pain, and the anticipation of pain. As Jude grows older, he loathes the increasing dependence he must have on devices such as wheelchairs, canes, and on relying on the care of others.
Self-harm and suicide
There is evident self harm in the novel and Yanagihara does not shy away from the details of how Jude does it nor how he feels while doing so. Harold's realization is excruciatingly painful, more so than the news that Jude has indeed finally died by suicide. Harold's self-deception does not save him or Jude from pain; if anything, it adds to both their suffering.
A Little Life was met with widespread acclaim from critics. The novel received rave reviews from The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications. Review aggregator website Book Marks reported only three negative and three mixed reviews among 49 total – 34 critics gave the book a rave review, while the remaining nine expressed positive impressions. In The Atlantic, Garth Greenwell suggested that A Little Life is "the long-awaited gay novel", as "it engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera. By violating the canons of current literary taste, by embracing melodrama and exaggeration and sentiment, it can access emotional truth denied more modest means of expression".
The New Yorker's Jon Michaud found A Little Life to be "a surprisingly subversive novel – one that uses the middle-class trappings of naturalistic fiction to deliver an unsettling meditation on sexual abuse, suffering, and the difficulties of recovery". He praised Yanagihara's rendering of Jude's abuse, saying it "never feels excessive or sensationalist. It is not included for shock value or titillation, as is sometimes the case in works of horror or crime fiction. Jude's suffering is so extensively documented because it is the foundation of his character". He concluded that the book "can also drive you mad, consume you, and take over your life. Like the axiom of equality, A Little Life feels elemental, irreducible – and, dark and disturbing though it is, there is beauty in it".
In The Washington Post, Nicole Lee described Yanagihara's novel as "a witness to human suffering pushed to its limits, drawn in extraordinary detail by incantatory prose". She wrote that "through insightful detail and her decade-by-decade examination of these people's lives, Yanagihara has drawn a deeply realized character study that inspires as much as devastates. It's a life, just like everyone else's, but in Yanagihara's hands, it's also tender and large, affecting and transcendent; not a little life at all".
Jeff Chu of Vox would "give A Little Life all of the awards". He said that no book he previously read had "captured as perfectly the inner life of someone hoarding the unwanted souvenirs of early trauma – the silence, the self-loathing, the chronic and aching pain" as this one, and found Yanagihara's prose to be "occasionally so stunning" that it would push him "back to the beginning of a paragraph for a second read". As he phrased it, "indeed, A Little Life may be the most beautiful, profoundly moving novel I've ever read. But I would never recommend it to anyone". Chu also said that Yanagihara's descriptions embodied his feelings, citing that "Jude's inability to address his wounds" compelled him to begin to address his own: "his struggle to find his peace emboldened me to try to find mine".
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Sam Sacks called the story "an epic study of trauma and friendship, written with such intelligence and depth of perception that it will be one of the benchmarks against which all other novels that broach those subjects (and they are legion) will be measured". He said, "what's remarkable about this novel, and what sets it apart from so many books centered on damaged protagonists, is the poise and equanimity with which Ms. Yanagihara presents the most shocking aspects of Jude's life. There is empathy in the writing but no judgment, and Jude's suffering, though unfathomably extreme, is never used to extort a cheap emotional response".
The Los Angeles Times's Steph Cha remarks that "A Little Life is not misery porn; if that's what you're looking for, you will be disappointed, denied catharsis. There are truths here that are almost too much to bear – that hope is a qualified thing, that even love, no matter how pure and freely given, is not always enough. This book made me realize how merciful most fiction really is, even at its darkest, and it's a testament to Yanagihara's ability that she can take such ugly material and make it beautiful".
To NPR contributor John Powers, A Little Life is "shot through with pain", but "far from being all dark"; in fact, it is "an unforgettable novel about the enduring grace of friendship", he concluded. Similarly, in Bustle, Ilana Masad wrote that Yanagihara explored "just what the title implies", which is, "the little bits of the little lives, so big when looked at close up, of four characters who live together in college and keep alive their friendship for decades after", and dubbed the novel "a remarkable feat, far from little in size, but worth every single page". In addition to being critically praised, the book is popular: as of December 2022, it had more than 400,000 ratings on Goodreads, with an average of 4.34 out of 5.
A notable negative opinion, however, appeared in The New York Review of Books. Daniel Mendelsohn sharply critiqued A Little Life for its technical execution, its depictions of violence, which he found ethically and aesthetically gratuitous, and its position with respect to the representation of queer life or issues by a presumed-heterosexual author. Mendelsohn's review prompted a response from Gerald Howard, the book's editor, taking issue not with Mendelsohn's dislike of the novel but "his implication that my author has somehow, to use his word, 'duped' readers into feeling the emotions of pity and terror and sadness and compassion", and his implication that the book only appeals to "college students and recent graduates who have been coddled by a permissive and endlessly solicitous university culture into 'see[ing] themselves not as agents in life but as potential victims'".
Plus, Christian Lorentzen, writing in the London Review of Books, referred to the characters as "stereotypical middle-class strivers plucked out of 1950s cinema". He asked, in regard to JB, who becomes a crystal meth addict, "what real person trapped in this novel wouldn't become a drug addict?". The New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin also wrote negatively of the novel, saying Yanagihara introduces "great shock value into her story to override its predictability. One major development here is gasp-inducingly unexpected, the stuff of life but also of melodrama. It may not lift the bleak mood, but it explains a lot about this voyeuristic book's popular success". And in a 2022 review of A Little Life's theatrical adaptation (of which more below), Naveen Kumar of The New York Times stated that the novel's reputation "has since become more divisive, with critics who consider its torment of Jude to be manipulative and excessive".
Awards and accolades
In July 2015, the novel was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and made the shortlist of six books in September 2015. In 2019, A Little Life was ranked 96th on The Guardian's list of the 100 best books of the 21st century.
- 2015 Man Booker Prize, shortlist
- 2015 National Book Award for Fiction, finalist
- 2015 Kirkus Prize in Fiction, won
- 2016 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, shortlist
- 2016 Women's Prize for Fiction, shortlist
- 2017 International Dublin Literary Award, shortlist
The theatre company Toneelgroep Amsterdam debuted Koen Tachelet's adaptation of A Little Life on September 23, 2018, in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Ivo van Hove directed the adaptation, which had a run time of over four hours. Van Hove collaborated with Yanagihara on the script after being given copies of the novel by two friends. Ramsey Nasr played the lead Jude St. Francis in the adaptation, which received generally positive reviews. Theatre critic Matt Trueman wrote that, despite the play's sometime suffocating trauma and violence, it "is van Hove at his best, theatre that leaves an ineradicable mark". The Dutch-language production with English subtitles was shown at the 2022 Edinburgh International Festival and in October 2022 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
In August 2020, the theatre company Liver & Lung presented an unofficial musical adaptation of A Little Life in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Seven songs from the album were released on Spotify on January 7, 2022, to celebrate the release of Yanagihara's new novel, To Paradise.
An English-language version of Tachelet's stage adaptation will premiere on 14 March 2023 at the Richmond Theatre in South West London, followed by West End run at the Harold Pinter Theatre from 25 March to 18 June. The production will star James Norton, Omari Douglas, Luke Thompson, and Zach Wyatt.
- Yanagihara, Hanya (28 April 2015). "How I Wrote My Novel: Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life". Vulture.com. Retrieved 18 July 2015.
- Maloney, Jennifer (3 September 2015). "How A Little Life Became a Sleeper Hit". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 13 October 2015.
- "Book Marks reviews of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara". Book Marks. Archived from the original on 2018-03-16. Retrieved 20 September 2022.
- McCann, Sean (3 June 2016). "'I'm So Sorry': A Little Life and the Socialism of the Rich". Post45.org. Archived from the original on 2021-07-31. Retrieved 26 February 2017.
- Sehgal, Parul (January 3 and 10, 2022). "The Key to Me: Fiction writers love it. Filmmakers can't resist it. But the trauma plot is wearing thin." The New Yorker. p. 65.
- Rushton, A. (2019). A Bubble in the Vein: Suicide, Community, and the Rejection of Neoliberalism in Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life and Miriam Toews's All My Puny Sorrows. In World Literature, Neoliberalism, and the Culture of Discontent (pp. 195-213). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. 
- Michaud, Jon (28 April 2015). "The Subversive Brilliance of A Little Life". The New Yorker.
- Sacks, Sam (6 March 2015). "Fiction Chronicle: Jude, the Obscure". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 17 July 2015.
- Anshaw, Carol (30 March 2015). "Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 July 2015.
- Powers, John (19 March 2015). "A Little Life: An Unforgettable Novel About the Grace of Friendship". NPR. Archived from the original on 2015-03-20. Retrieved 18 July 2015.
- Cha, Steph (19 March 2015). "A Little Life: a darkly beautiful tale of love and friendship". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 18 July 2015.
- Greenwell, Garth (31 May 2015). "A Little Life: The Great Gay Novel Might Be Here". The Atlantic.
- Lee, Nicole (2015-04-10). "Book review: A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, inspires and devastates". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2021-11-01.
- Chu, Jeff (2015-10-14). "A Little Life is the best novel of the year. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone". Vox. Archived from the original on 2015-10-15. Retrieved 2021-11-01.
- Masad, Ilana (2015-03-10). "Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life Is Far from Little in Size, but It's Worth Every Single Page". Bustle. Archived from the original on 2015-03-13. Retrieved 2021-11-01.
- "A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara". Goodreads. 2022-12-10.
- Mendelsohn, Daniel (3 December 2015). "A Striptease Among Pals". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 24 February 2016.
- Howard, Gerald (17 December 2015). "Too Hard to Take". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 24 February 2016.
- Lorentzen, Christian (24 September 2015). "Sessions with a Poker". London Review of Books. pp. 32–33.
- Maslin, Janet (September 13, 2015) "Review: A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara's Traumatic Tale of Male Friendship." The New York Times. (Retrieved October 31, 2021.)
- Kumar, Naveen (October 26, 2022) "A Little Life Review: A Collage of Unrelenting Torment". The New York Times. (Retrieved October 27, 2022.)
- Hollander, Sophia (16 July 2015). "Seth Meyers's Late Night Literary Salon". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 18 July 2015.
- "Man Booker Prize announces 2015 longlist". Archived from the original on 10 August 2015. Retrieved 5 August 2015.
- "Pulitzer winner makes Booker Prize shortlist". BBC News. 15 September 2015. Retrieved 15 September 2015.
- "The 100 best books of the 21st century". The Guardian. 21 September 2019. Retrieved 22 September 2019.
- "The Man Booker Prize 2015 | The Man Booker Prizes". themanbookerprize.com. Archived from the original on 2016-02-29. Retrieved 2016-02-29.
- "2015 National Book Awards". www.nationalbook.org. Retrieved 2016-02-29.
- "2015 Finalists: fiction | Kirkus Reviews". Kirkus Reviews. Archived from the original on 2018-07-06. Retrieved 2016-02-29.
- "2016 Carnegie Medals Shortlist Announced". American Libraries. October 19, 2015. Retrieved November 15, 2015.
- "2016 Women's Prize for Fiction Shortlist Revealed". Women's Prize for Fiction. April 11, 2016.
- "The 2017 Shortlist". International Dublin Literary Award. 12 April 2017.
- "Een klein leven". Toneelgroep Amsterdam. Archived from the original on 2018-09-21. Retrieved 2021-01-12.
- Siegal, Nina (2018-09-21). "A Little Life Comes to the Stage. The Audience Can't Look Away". The New York Times. Retrieved 2022-12-10.
- D'Addario, Daniel (2022-10-21). "A Little Life Review: Director Ivo van Hove Draws Blood and Tears at BAM". Variety. Retrieved 2022-12-11.
- Trueman, Matt (September 28, 2018). "A Little Life, Stadsschouwburg, Amsterdam – a world of pain". Financial Times. Archived from the original on 2018-09-30. Retrieved 2021-01-12.
- Mark Fisher (August 21, 2022). "A Little Life review – Hanya Yanagihara drama is not for the faint-hearted". The Guardian. Retrieved October 21, 2022.
- Sarah Bahr (June 2, 2022). "BAM's Next Wave Festival Returns With an Ivo van Hove Production". The New York Times. Retrieved October 21, 2022.
- "Showbiz: Cammie-winning theatre company to stage KL's first post-MCO musical". New Straits Times. 30 July 2020.
- Rabinowitz, Chloe. "Songs Inspired by A Little Life: Concept Album Released". BroadwayWorld. Retrieved 20 January 2022.
- Wood, Alex (23 November 2022). "A Little Life to run in the West End with James Norton, Omari Douglas, Luke Thompson and Zach Wyatt". WhatsOnStage. Retrieved 24 November 2022.