Book of the Month: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Hanya Yanagihara’s deft depiction of heartbreak becomes a dark examination of the tyranny of memory, the limits of human endurance and the power of friendship
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2015, Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel is a powerful exploration of the limits of human endurance. Whether you’re new to A Little Life or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide
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By degrees, an enigmatic, brilliant and terrifyingly talented litigator becomes an increasingly broken man. Despite his successful career, his mind and body remain deeply scarred by an unspeakable childhood. He becomes progressively more haunted by what he suspects is a history of trauma he cannot overcome, and that he fears will define his life forever.
Hanya Yanagihara’s deft depiction of heartbreak becomes a dark examination of the tyranny of memory and the limits of human endurance.
Hanya Yanagihara is an American novelist, editor, and travel writer. Her debut novel The People in the Trees, was published in 2013 to wide critical acclaim. Her follow-up, A Little Life, was shortlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize. Yanagihara’s third novel, To Paradise, reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list when published in 2022.
Yanagihara was born in California, has lived in Hawaii and Texas, and now lives in New York City. In 2016, she joined the PEN America Board, and is the Editor-in-Chief of the New York Times Style Magazine.
Jude is protagonist of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. In his adult life, he is a brilliant and successful litigator in New York City, yet he has a mysterious past that remains undisclosed to his friendship group. Jude suffers from chronic pain in both his legs and his back and struggles to overcome the psychological trauma of a childhood scarred by sexual abuse.
Willem grew up in Wyoming with parents who were ranchers, living alongside his brother, Hemming, who had cerebral palsy. Beginning as an aspiring actor who waits tables on the side, Willem eventually becomes a successful and famous movie star. Willem is Jude’s closest friend and he eventually becomes his partner, in later years.
JB is a visual artist from Haiti who specialises in portraiture and photography. Described as quick-witted and sometimes cruel, he often uses his friends as subject matter for his work and is desperate for recognition in the art world. Later in the novel, JB battles drug addiction which his friends struggle to help him overcome.
Malcolm grew up on the Upper East Side of New York City and still lives there with his family. He comes from a wealthy background and as a result, doesn’t ever worry about money and is generous to his friends. Malcolm is an architect at a prominent firm and later goes on to start his own, designing houses for those close to him.
Jon Michaud, The New Yorker:
‘A Little Life becomes 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 … Yanagihara’s rendering of Jude’s abuse 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 … Yanagihara’s novel 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.’
Nicole Lee, The Washington Post:
‘A Little Life is a witness to human suffering pushed to its limits, drawn in extraordinary detail by incantatory prose … 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.’
Garth Greenwell, The Atlantic:
‘…the most ambitious chronicle of the social and emotional lives of gay men to have emerged for many years … Just as Yanagihara’s characters challenge conventional categories of gay identity, so A Little Life avoids the familiar narratives of gay fiction. Yanagihara approaches the collective traumas that have so deeply shaped modern gay identity—sickness and discrimination—obliquely, avoiding the conventions of the coming-out narrative or the AIDS novel … In this astonishing novel, Yanagihara achieves what great gay art from Proust to Almodóvar has so often sought: a grandeur of feeling adequate to ‘the terrifying largeness, the impossibility of the world.’”
Carol Anshaw, The New York Times Book Review:
‘After a while, I understood I was being enticed to watch someone’s terrible suffering from a comfortable distance … 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’
A Little Life heavily uses location to anchor its plot. The novel feels deeply rooted in place, from the characters eating pho in Chinatown to Jude and Willem creating a life together in their Lispenard Street apartment. How does this serve the story? And why do you think these places have now come to mean so much to readers of the book?
Part 1 of the novel focuses on the post-college life of four main characters - Jude, JB, Willem and Malcolm - before the narrative dramatically shifts in part 2, to focus almost entirely on Jude. Through this shift, Yanagihara slowly reveals details of Jude’s past and his coping mechanisms for dealing with this in the present. How does this narrative shift affect the reading experience? Why do you think the author chose to dramatically alter the focus of the narrative in such a way?
The four lead characters, Willem, JB, Malcolm, and Jude are central to the story with a friendship that spans decades. Do you see any similarities in their characters? What experiences have brought them together to form such a closely-knit group with long-lasting friendship?
‘Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return’. Discuss this quote - To what extent do the friendship group become crucial as part of Jude’s recovery? Do you believe there was ever a chance for Jude to experience any kind of healing?
When published, The Atlantic called A Little Life ‘an astonishing and ambitious chronicle of queer life in America’ in an article titled ‘The Great Gay Novel Might Be Here’. Despite this, Yanagihara stated in a recent interview with The Standard that writing a gay novel was ‘never a sort of intention,’ and that ‘it was just who the characters happened to be.’ Is it fair to term A Little Life a ‘gay novel’? How central to the novel is the characters’ sexuality, and what relevance does it bear?
Before publication, Yanagihara’s editor suggested she should cut back on some of the darker histories of Jude’s childhood. Since its release, A Little Life has been critiqued for these explicit depictions of abuse and even classed as ‘torture porn’ by one reviewer. Consequently, some readers have found its graphic nature unsettling. Discuss whether the debate around the novel being exploitative is valid.
In an interview with Vulture, Yanagihara said that she wanted to ‘create a character who never gets better’ while exploring ‘the idea that there is a level of trauma from which a person simply can’t recover. I do believe that really, we can sustain only a finite amount of suffering.’ To what extent does this feel realistic? Does Yanagihara’s depiction of a person struggling with the legacy of childhood trauma feel true to life?
While the novel is set in modern times in New York City, it is very light on any wider specifics such as socio-political or historical events. Why do you think Yanagihara has chosen to omit such detail? Is there a benefit to this?
A Little Life contains seven chapters, each with three sections. Each subsection contains 18,000 words. When speaking to The New Yorker in 2022, Yanagihara revealed the purpose behind the book’s structure. ‘This scaffolding was there to organize, but not dilute, the story’s corrosive emotions. She did not separate the subsections with white space, “to deprive readers of natural resting places.”’ As a reader, did this structure affect your experience of the book? Upon reflection, did you notice it, and if so, how did it impact you?
Jude is legally adopted by Harold and his wife Julia. As a thirty-year-old grown man, much of this is symbolic. What is Yanagihara trying to depict here? What is the purpose of the adoption and how does it affect Jude?
‘So much of this book is about Jude’s hopefulness, his attempt to heal himself, and I hope that the narrative’s momentum and suspense comes from the reader’s growing recognition - and Jude’s - that he’s too damaged to ever truly be repaired, and that there’s a single inevitable ending for him.
‘This book is, obviously, a psychological book, but not one about psychology. I didn’t use psychological language, and I didn’t want to - nor encourage the reader to - diagnose Jude in clinical terms. As for the limits of therapy: I can’t speak to them, only that therapy, like any medical treatment, is finite in its ability to save and correct.’
Read Hanya Yanagihara’s interview with Electric Literature here.
‘One of the things my editor and I fought about is the idea of how much a reader can take. To me, you get nowhere second guessing how much can a reader stand and how much can she not. What a reader can always tell is when you are holding back for fear of offending them. I wanted there to be something too much about the violence in the book, but I also wanted there to be an exaggeration of everything, an exaggeration of love, of empathy, of pity, of horror.
‘I wanted everything turned up a little too high. I wanted it to feel a little bit vulgar in places. Or to be always walking that line between out and out sentimentality and the boundaries of good taste. I wanted the reader to really press up against that as much as possible and if I tipped into it in a couple of places, well, I couldn’t really stop it.’
Read Hanya Yanagihara’s interview with The Observer here.
‘I wanted the narrative to have a sleight-of-hand quality: the reader would begin thinking it a fairly standard post-college New York City book (a literary subgenre I happen to love), and then, as the story progressed, would sense it was becoming something else, something unexpected.
‘As I began writing, I thought a great deal about that particular brand of male unself-consciousness, which JB and Willem embody but which Jude cannot. One of the reasons Jude’s interior life doesn’t appear in the book until the second section was because I wanted the first section, which concentrates on the other three characters, to be, in a sense, a study of their normalcy, a foil to the strangeness of Jude’s own life.’
Read Hanya Yanagihara’s interview with Vulture here.
Upon publication, Hanya Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, received widespread critical acclaim. However, the novel wasn’t a bestseller, selling only a few thousand copies when released. So when her second novel, A Little Life, was published, no one expected the book to become one of the most buzzed-about titles of 2015. Especially given the nature of the book, with a relentlessly bleak plot focused on both childhood and adult abuse, laden with trauma and graphic depictions of self-harm. At around 800 pages long, it seemed unlikely to be a blockbuster.
Yet A Little Life was a sleeper hit. First came the - hugely positive - reviews (‘I’d give A Little Life all of the awards’, said Jeff Chu at Vox). Then slowly, through both booksellers’ and readers’ word-of-mouth recommendations, A Little Life began to gather momentum, especially on social media.
On Twitter, readers shared their thoughts, detailing how deeply the book had affected them. On Instagram, fans posted pictures of themselves holding up the book in front of their own face, the grimacing face on the cover replacing their own. On TikTok, people uploaded video diaries of themselves reading the book, concluding with their heartbroken and tearful reactions once finished.
To market the novel, Yanagihara self-funded a run of tote bags, with the now iconic print of Jude&JB&Willem&Malcolm emblazoned on the side. She created an Instagram account dedicated to the book, teaming up with a photo editor at Condé Nast Traveler. Here, they shared pictures of the real-life Lispenard Street, and reposted fans’ selfies and images of merchandise out in the wild. It was a time when publishing and books weren’t front and centre on social media, and her marketing initiatives paid off, capturing a zeitgeist that readers clamoured to be a part of.
Next, came the award nominations. In July of 2015, A Little Life was longlisted for the Booker Prize, and went on to make the shortlist. It was shortlisted for numerous other prizes that year, winning the Kirkus Prize in Fiction.
Slowly, the novel began to take on a life of its own. It made its way into the hands of celebrities, with Victoria Beckham recommending it in an interview with Elle (‘It’s so great’) and Anthony Porowski wearing an A Little Life t-shirt on Netflix show Queer Eye (‘I immediately fell in love with the book’, he told Vulture). Kaia Gerber referenced the book in a Vogue interview and Dua Lipa uploaded selfies of herself reading it on the beach.
More merchandise popped up on Etsy, and beyond. Memes of the book were shared on every platform. Fan art of Jude and Willem became a mainstay on Tumblr. Obsessed readers even got tattoos of the chapter titles.
But while the book defied all expectations, it also sparked debate from both readers and reviewers. The novel currently has 60k reviews on book community website Good Reads, with many readers giving it just one star: Why? ‘The long and short of it is that this book is nothing but misery porn, on purpose… Fuck. This. Book’, reads one such review which echoes the sentiment of many others, with over 3,000 likes.
Critic Daniel Mendelsohn at the New York Review of Books, one of few negative reviews, said that ‘the abuse that Yanagihara heaps on her protagonist is neither just from a human point of view nor necessary from an artistic one’, which caused Yanagihara’s editor to leap to her defence in an open letter in a follow-up edition of the publication. ‘What I do object to … is his implication that my author has somehow, to use his word, “duped” its readers into feeling the emotions of pity and terror and sadness and compassion,’ he stated.
Yanagihara has also been criticised for writing about gay men as a straight woman (the #ownvoice movement), yet this is something the author ardently defends. ‘It’s very dangerous. I have the right to write about whatever I want. The only thing a reader can judge is whether I have done so well or not’, she recently told the Guardian.
Even now, eight years after publication, the debate around A Little Life rages on. But so does its fandom, which has reached unprecedented cult-like levels. Currently, the hashtag #ALittleLife has now been viewed on TikTok 93 million times and its dedicated Instagram account has 51k followers. And the novel itself has sold over 2.5 million copies. For a divisive book that wasn’t expected to be a hit, those are pretty impressive numbers.
The New Yorker - Hanya Yanagihara’s audience of one