A powerful slice-of-life

Yanagihara uses beautiful prose to play with her audience’s heartstrings in the enthralling novel A Little Life

Mia Nguyen
Mercury Staff

Despite being called “A Little Life,” Hanya Yanagihara’s bestselling novel brings more than just a little heartache to readers by using beautiful language to combat the emotional and physical trauma she unleashes on her characters.


The novel follows the lives of four men as they navigate the joys and trials of adulthood, but this is not your average coming of age story. Yanagihara combines decades of heartache and suffering within twisted storylines that make readers wonder “what did these characters ever do to her?” But she somehow creates figures that remain likable despite their vanity and selfish ambition.

The characters are strangely close yet all have the potential to love and hurt one another in extreme ways, which made me want to read the entire novel in one sitting. The story starts with a simple lightheartedness but soon progresses into relationships that are more complex and dark. At times I wished I could hug these characters and at other times I wanted to slap them, which in my opinion, is a sign of successfully creating three-dimensional characters.

I was originally skeptical of the novel, especially since the characters all have different career paths. Willem is an actor, JB is an artist, Malcolm is an architect and Jude is a lawyer and mathematician. I thought it would be difficult to incorporate detailed descriptions of extremely different lives in one novel. Yanagihara didn’t previously have detailed knowledge about these careers, but after reading the novel, I felt like I had a better idea of their professions and their lives. At times it is a highly romanticized version of the working-class lifestyle and felt slightly pretentious. It is a bit idealistic that all these men become wildly successful in their fields and achieve so much fame, but Yanagihara attempts to balance their luck with a lot of misfortune.


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Many reviews found the storyline overly pretentious and voyeuristic. The author shows the hardships of living through rose-colored lenses, but readers felt like Yanagihara also idealized self-harm and poor mental health. The controversy that surrounds this book is understandable, as there are a lot of triggering subjects within its pages. It dives deep into multiple types of abuse, infidelity and addiction amongst many other sensitive topics.

For instance, a huge focal point of the novel is Jude St. Francis. Jude is a racially ambiguous enigma with a mysterious, troubled past and a whole lot of emotional baggage. While it is clear that Jude is self-loathing and stubborn, readers will remain unaware of why he has permanent physical impairments and hates physical touch, among other unusual traits, until he’s ready to discuss these things with his companions. But throughout, Yanagihara’s pacing forces the reader to be patient and consume her content page by page.

This novel is clearly not for the faint of heart. At times, it is gruesome and difficult to read. But the prose itself is wonderful, filled with powerful descriptions and romantic diction. Yanagihara’s beautiful writing style and excellent emotional pacing clash heavily with the brutal content to create a unique novel that is one of the most emotional things I have ever read.

A lot of people also disliked how the novel failed to mention the origin of the men’s friendships despite it being a lengthy book. The novel begins with already established friendships, but I liked the ambiguity of it. Many times, meeting someone isn’t the most exciting moment in a relationship, and I can’t recall how I met my closest friends. It’s the restaurants we eat at, the car rides we take – not the initial meetings that make a relationship. The author proves that point by immediately throwing the reader into this tightly bound friend group which makes you feel like a part of the group from the very beginning.

The magic of this book lies in the fact that Yanagihara’s development of the characters almost always supersedes the volume of descriptive mundane activities. I assumed I would grow tired of pages of characters going to their jobs, eating or commuting. Instead, I found myself loving these seemingly unimportant details because it gives so much insight into the characters. They aren’t just two-dimensional people; they live day to day just as the readers do. It gives the audience time to become invested in the lives of these characters that we follow for chapters and chapters of content.

Although “A Little Life”is known for being sad, as an unemotional person I was fairly certain that I would not shed a tear. I was very wrong. Towards the middle of the novel, I was a sobbing mess, literally staining the pages with my tears. I have never cared or hated literary characters the way I did in this book, so I highly recommend it if you want to romanticize your life, or if you’re in need of a good cry.


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