CW: This review alludes to some of the topics covered in A Little Life. You can find a list of the content/trigger warnings listed here.
Spoilers: While I don’t actively talk of spoilers, I can’t promise that I won’t or that you might interpret this as such. If you want to give this a read yourself, perhaps lightly skim or come back when you’ve given it a read and we can compare notes! 

“What he knew, he knew from books, and books lied, they made things prettier” 

This wasn’t a book I delved into lightly, like dipping your toe into unknown waters knowing it will result in hurt but proceeding anyway with caution. You can’t escape the list of warnings shown alongside reviews of A Little Life, so there was already the idea that my innocence would be taken from me. I’m 23 and what innocence I have left, I want to hold onto tightly; I want life to remain a Disneyland where Mickey is real, and anyone can be a princess. But, the promise of truly magical writing and a plot that was so heartbreaking and raw, so beautiful and laced with the story of true friendship and found family, I couldn’t put it off any longer. 

“Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely?”

A Little Life was really a testament to the power of friendship - how it’s not what is given to you but how you shape each and every friendship, a dance between two to find the rhythm and your place together. Yanagihara does not shy away from the complexities of the relationships between the group of friends we follow throughout their life - from meeting in college in New York to navigating love and loss, new jobs and opportunities, as well as the past they had before knowing each other and what they face in the present together. Willem, JB, Malcolm, and Jude all have unique stories to tell, from different backgrounds and levels of privilege, but what A Little Life shows is how friendship is not defined by this. A friendship starts on the day you meet and develops into a bond that can become stronger than those of family. 

While we catch glimpses of each of our characters' lives, it is Jude’s past that is explored through the novel. As the friends discover more about his past, so do we as a reader. The turmoil he went through, the levels of abuse and hardship he faced leading up to the day he met his friends. It would be difficult not to root for Jude as he finds his place in what he feels is a lonely world, and realising that he doesn’t have to be alone. He has a group of friends, all with their own story, unique characteristics, their own flaws, who are rooting for him as much as the reader.  

Friendships may feel selfish, and you may question “what do I even bring to this?” but it’s likely they’re thinking the same thing. Jude feels like he’s a burden, a drain on his friends but, what they and we witness is how much of a pure, brilliant friend Jude really is. This is something many of us will have felt before - worried we met up with friends and go away thinking we didn’t ask them enough questions, scared we just spoke at them instead of with them. But the point of friendship is it’s a balance, and it’s up to you and your friend to define that relationship and experience the wonders of friendship together.

“We are so old, we have become young again.”

From the handful of reviews and comments I’ve read, many referenced how this book doesn’t have time markers but, over the course of the 30-plus years, we are able to follow the timeline. We are always taken to the present, and then offered flashbacks for the time we’ve missed and sometimes further back to their childhoods. 

But, one thing I haven’t really seen mentioned is a difficulty to picture them changing with age. We’re introduced to them when Jude is around 18 and the others a year or two older. While the years unfold across the pages, I personally found it difficult to shake the naive, innocent nature of the new friendship. I couldn’t help but visualise the characters as younger, more innocent with more life to give. This is something that I believe added to the personal heartbreak I felt throughout. 

We’re also introduced to characters such as Harold, an older gentleman and Jude’s Law professor, to whom he forms a special, parental connection. I found some of the scenes with Harold the most heartbreaking. While he’s older you can see the life he has, the energy he radiates and the hope he is always filled with, but with age comes the inevitability of an end and that’s something that made me sympathise more with Harold.

Where the book ends, the characters have obviously aged, and it’s something that is referenced throughout, but with the characteristics that Yanaghira emphasizes, it’s hard to shake that young, innocent friendship we’re first introduced to. 

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

A Little Life is some of the, if not the, most gut-wrenching prose I have ever read, with excerpts and imagery that made me physically wince as I read. At points, my eyes bulged, and my jaw dropped; my eyes glistened, brows furrowed. She writes with such brutal honesty to build a picture that makes it hard not to visualise these difficult scenes. But it’s not just the dark, twisted prose where she shines. 

Yanagihara not only perfects the way she writes about sadness, but she balances this with poetic and uplifting prose of the highs of Jude and his friends’ life. I found myself more emotional at these points of the story - how the characters were depicted happy and content - that I found myself with tears in my eyes and a pleading look on my face, overwhelmed with emotion because happiness is what these characters deserve.  It’s a story of extremes, but that’s what makes it all so real. It doesn’t waste time on niceties, it’s openly honest, raw, and real.

“What he knew, he knew from books, and books lied, they made things prettier” 

This book has been labelled by many as “Torture Porn” - a strong phrase that I think undersells the true point of A Little Life. To me, the point is that for some, the lives depicted in A Little Life are closer to reality than you may like to admit. 

The enjoyment of the story doesn’t come from the difficult scenes. It’s what comes after. In the discussions you have with your friends who’ve also read the book. It’s catching yourself remembering quotes months after, and feeling the same strong feelings you felt when you first read the words. It’s gaining a deeper understanding of why each character is placed at specific times in the storyline, how every part of the 720-pages build up to an ending that will haunt you in a way that makes your heart ache longer than you’d expect.

Books are there to entertain, to escape from the realness of your own life and step into another. To develop unattainable expectations of life - how you’ll meet someone, how you’ll progress in your own life. While there is a fairy-tale-like element in how the characters grow up and enter the working world into their dream jobs, this is contrasted to the naked truth of how life really is. That everyone has a little life to experience and share, and not all of these are fairy tales. 

I went into A Little Life worried to lose that last drop of innocence I had from my late teens, but it wasn’t until I finished the final page at 11:48pm on a Thursday evening, wiped my cheeks and let out one hell of a sigh that I realised, actually, the innocence I had left a long time ago. My imagination came up with a wilder plot that it’s probably worrying to think about. While the events were still extremely shocking, it was truly the way this book was written that made it all the more heartbreaking. 

While my words hold no literary power (nor do they need to), 6 years after its original release, A Little Life has earned the title of a modern-day classic and I feel privileged to have had the mental capacity to appreciate the genius it has to offer.

While I won’t be rushing to break my heart as much with the next book I read or looking to re-read this anytime soon, I know A Little Life will continue to haunt my thoughts in a way that I welcome.

Thanks for reading, 
Sarah x