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A Little Life ()

The little life of the title is that of the portentously named Jude St. Francis. Abandoned as an infant, he was raised in a monastery where various brothers brutalized and sodomized him. One monk in particular befriends him and tells him they will run away together and be father and son. But once they escape he whores to boy out for the money he says they need, before beginning to assault Jude himself. Inevitably confused about sexuality and relationships, the boy undertakes to perform his duties well. Eventually he ends up with a mysterious doctor and is involved in a car accident that cripples his legs and back. But with the encouragement of a social worker who recognizes his intelligence, he is able to attend an elite Boston college to study mathematics and then law school. As the novel opens, he and his three best friends from college are living in New York City and pursuing careers. Willem, a Nordic farm boy, is waiting tables while he works towards a break as an actor. Malcolm, is an architect from a wealthy black family. And JB is a gay black artist whose works generally depict members of the group. Jude has never told anyone--except the social worker--about his life before college and over the next 30 years he will never share it all. For all his brains and beauty, the central fact of his existence is his brokenness and self-loathing, which leave him vulnerable and terrified of abandonment. The action of the novel concerns the rituals of self-abuse that he engages in and the myriad ways in which those in his social circle take advantage of him.

Mind you, that's not how the book is generally presented. It seems odd to read people saying that it is about the beauty of friendship or, even more bizarrely, that it is the great gay novel. But JB earns fame by exhibiting portraits of Jude that he can't even show the subject because they are too revealing. A young doctor becomes part of the group because after treating Jude for cutting himself--which he does to the point of threatening his own life--he essentially becomes a personal physician. He keeps tending to Jude even when he knows the patient is such a danger to himself that suicide--intentional or not--is likely. And he tends not just to the self-inflicted bleeding and the residual effects of the accident but to the various pathologies caused by the years of being a victim of paedophilia and to the injuries Jude sustains in a sado-masochistic gay relationship. He repeatedly threatens to stop treating Jude unless he seeks psychological help, but always folds. And in one devastating scene, the desire to see him as a self-less healer is crushed when his wife says the only reason she thought he wasn't too arrogant and self-important to love was because of this one corner of his life. Jude is also adopted by a famous law professor and his wife who had lost their own son. They are by far the most likable characters in the story, but the whole adult adoption thing--of a young man who just happens to be talented but needy--strikes an odd chord. And worst of all is Willem, who, after years of living together as roommmates, becomes a "lover", even though Jude is repelled by sex and he, himself, is more hedonistic than homosexual.

To her credit, the author includes the pivotal question which exposes Willem:
Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.
In their own ways then, each character has then rejected genuine friendship with Jude

Meanwhile, Jude is not free of blame in this whole mess as he uses the threat of withdrawal to keep any of the group from intervening to try and help him. Some years ago I attended a 12-Step program with a participant and, while I don't embrace it all, there were two concepts that seemed useful. The first is that a family, a group or whatever tends to adjust to an addict so that they nearly seem to be the normal one, with no one expecting or asking the person with the problem to be normal. Secondly, this behavior does not just cede power to the addict but makes the surrounding people his enablers--they effectively sanction his behavior. Of course, the tragedy here is that no one ever forces Jude to confront himself in this way, nor do they ever confront themselves. This is a tale of epic dysfunction, not of friendship. But give Ms Yanagihara, it is readable.


Grade: (C)


See also:

Gender Issues
Hanya Yanagihara Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Hanya Yanagihara
    -WIKIPEDIA: A Little Life
    -BOOK SITE: A Little Life (Penguin Random House)
    -STUDY GUIDE: A Little Life (Grade Saver)
    -ESSAY: Hanya Yanagihara: ‘A book that made me cry? I haven’t cried since 1995’: The author of A Little Life on life-changing Philip Roth, her jealousy of Kazuo Ishiguro, and why Hilary Mantel’s earlier work is underrated (Hanya Yanagihara, 2 Feb 2018, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Hanya Yanagihara: ‘Don’t we read fiction exactly to be upset?’: The author of the acclaimed novel A Little Life asks what it means to be ‘brave’ as a writer (Hanya Yanagihara, 4 Mar 2016, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: How I Wrote My Novel: Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara, 4/28/15, Vulture)
    -INTERVIEW: Hanya Yanagihara: ‘TV execs wanted to turn A Little Life into Sex and the City’: The author on why there won’t be a small-screen adaptation of A Little Life any time soon, taking a ‘big swing’ in her ambitious new novel To Paradise and why the pandemic didn’t come as a surprise (Tanya Sweeney, March 12 2022, Independent ie)
-ESSAY: How a Tragic, 7-Year-Old Novel Became This Year’s Literary Sensation: The secret to a long life for a dense and dark novel? You guessed it: social media constantly trending? (TRISH ROONEY, 3/22/22, Inside Hook)
    -BOOK LIST: Best Books of the 21st Century: #96 A Little Life (The Guardian)
    -INTERVIEW: Hanya Yanagihara - Longlist author interview (Leah, 2015-09-01, The Booker Prize)
    -PROFILE: Author Hanya Yanagihara's Not-So-Little Life (ALEXANDER NAZARYAN, 03/19/15, Newsweek)
    -PROFILE: Best Books of 2015: Hanya Yanagihara (Claiborne Smith, Kirkus)
    -PODCAST: Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life (This Writing Life)
    -INTERVIEW: Hanya Yanagihara: ‘I wanted everything turned up a little too high’ (Tim Adams, 7/26/15, The Observer)
    -INTERVIEW: Hanya Yanagihara and Gerry Howard: The Slate Book Review author-editor conversation. (HANYA YANAGIHARA and GERRY HOWARD, MARCH 05, 2015, Slate)
    -AUDIO DISCUSSION: Hanya Yanagihara on A Little Life: The award-winning author discusses her acclaimed novel with Madhulika Sikka. (MIKE VUOLO, FEB 26, 2016, Slate)
    -INTERVIEW: A Stubborn Lack of Redemption, an interview with Hanya Yanagihara, author of A Little Life (ADALENA KAVANAGH, 5/21/15, Electric Lit)
    -PROFILE: How ‘A Little Life’ Became a Sleeper Hit: ‘A Little Life,’ Hanya Yanagihara’s harrowing saga of friendship and sorrow, has become the sleeper hit of the summer (Jennifer Maloney, Sept. 3, 2015, Wall Street Journal)
    -INTERVIEW: ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara (Ilana Masad, August 5, 2015, The Millions)
    -PROFILE: Debate erupts as Hanya Yanagihara's editor takes on critic over bad review of A Little Life: Editor Gerald Howard leaps to defence of Booker-shortlisted novel, after critic Daniel Mendelsohn claimed ‘the abuse that Yanagihara heaps on her protagonist is neither just nor necessary’ in the New York Review of Books (Alison Flood, 2 Dec 2015, The Guardian)
    -LETTER: ‘Too Hard…To Take’ (Gerald Howard, reply by Daniel Mendelsohn, December 17, 2015, NY Review of Books)
    -PODCAST: New fiction with Hanya Yanagihara and Andrew Miller - books podcast: The novelists explain how two very different books were powered by surprisingly similar ambitions (The Guardian Books podcast)
    -VIDEO: Hanya Yanagihara and Matthew Specktor, “A Little Life: A Novel” (Library Foundation of LAPRO, Feb 23, 2016)
    -VIDEO: Hanya Yanagihara | A Little Life (Author Events, Mar 31, 2016)
    -VIDEO: Hanya Yanagihara on A Little Life (John Adams Institute, 10/13/2016)
    -PROFILE: A Little Life Author Hanya Yanagihara On Landing Her Dream Job (JUSTIN RAVITZ, 9 OCTOBER 2018, Refinery 29)
    -VIDEO: Hanya Yanagihara, "A Little Life" (Feb 29, 2016, Politics and Prose)
-INTERVIEW: Maverick in a Pacific Tempest: Hanya Yanagihara on being a first-novel sensation: Hanya Yanagihara talks to James Kidd about publishing her first novel (James Kidd, 05 January 2014, Independent)
    -INTERVIEW: Talking with Hanya Yanagihara About Her Debut Novel, The People in the Trees (Vogue, August 12, 2013)
    -INTERVIEW: Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski Goes Deep on A Little Life (E. Alex Jung, 2/23/18, Vulture)
-ARCHIVES: hanya yanagihara (NY Times)
    -ARCHIVES: hanya-yanagihara (The Guardian)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Book Marks)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Garth Greenwell, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Carol Anshaw, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (John Powers, NPR: Fresh Air)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Jon Michaud, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Leigh Newman, Oprah)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Jeff Chu, Vox)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Caroline Leavitt, SF Gate)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (The Economist)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Brigid Delaney, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Alex Preston, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Daniel Mendelsohn, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Jason Beerman, Toronto Star)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Ilana Masad, Bustle)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Christian Lorentzen, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Marion Winik, Newsday)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Anna Andersen, Star Tribune)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Claire Fallon, Huffington Post)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Jan Stuart, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Stephenie Harrison, Book Page)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Jenny Davidson, Book Forum)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Sean McCann, Post 45)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Sarah Churchwell, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Stacy Gillis, The Conversation)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Elif Batuman, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Christian Lorentzen, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Subraj Singh, Guyana Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Mariam Digges, SBS)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Sara Baume, Irish Times)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (James Kidd, Independent
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (South China Morning Post)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Simon westcott, SCMP)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Janet Maslin, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Nicole Lee, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of A Little Life (Dave Wheeler, Shelf Awareness)
    -REVIEW: of
-REVIEW: of People in the Trees (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of People in the Trees (Katie Kitamura, The Guardian)
-REVIEW: of To Paradise (Maureen Corrigan, NPR)
    -REVIEW: of To Paradise (John Boyne, Irish Independent)
    -REVIEW: of To Paradise (Constance Grady, Vox)
    -REVIEW: of To Paradise (New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of To Paradise ( Miyako Pleines, Spectrum Culture)
    -REVIEW: of To Paradise (
    -REVIEW: of To Paradise (
    -REVIEW: of To Paradise (
    -REVIEW: of To Paradise (
    -REVIEW: of To Paradise (
    -REVIEW: of To Paradise (
    -REVIEW: of To Paradise (
    -REVIEW: of To Paradise (
    -REVIEW: of To Paradise (


    -PLAY REVIEW: A Little Life is absurdly, tediously, pointlessly bleak: This four-hour self-harm horror-show is schadenfreude dressed up as empathy. (Katherine Cowles, 4/23, New Statesman)
    -PLAY REVIEW: A Little Life (Henry Hitchings, TLS)

Book-related and General Links:

-ESSAY: ‘Nudity and misery’:: Reviews of A Little Life on stage are in. (Janet Manley, March 16, 2023, Lit Hub)