A Little Life is a 2015 novel by American novelist Hanya Yanagihara. The novel was written over the course of eighteen months. Despite the length and difficult subject matter of the book, it became a bestseller.
A coming of age story, the novel follows the lives of four friends in New York City after they have graduated from college. Malcolm, a struggling architect from a wealthy biracial family, still lives at home. JB is a painter of Haitian descent, Willem an actor whose parents were Danish and Icelandic. And Jude, of ambiguous ethnicity, works as a lawyer. While the four friends remain connected, Willem and Jude are especially close, in part because they are both orphaned and have no money and therefore must share a small one bedroom apartment.
Despite Willem and Jude's closeness, Jude remains largely unknown to his roommate and the rest of the group because he reveals nothing about his childhood or his life prior to meeting his friends. Because of an incident he refers to only as a car injury, Jude walks with a limp and has nerve damage in his spine that causes him great pain. He also self-harms by cutting his arms. Nevertheless, he manages to become a successful lawyer and develops a close relationship with his former law professor and mentor, Harold, and his wife Julia. When Jude is thirty, after knowing him for nearly a decade, Harold and Julia ask him if they can adopt him. Jude consents, but the time before the adoption is filled with bouts of self-harm as he struggles against his feelings that he is essentially unworthy of affection.
As the men enter their thirties they each become successful in their respective fields, while still maintaining their friendship. However JB becomes addicted to crystal meth and when his friends decide to stage an intervention he mocks Jude by doing a crude imitation of his limp. Despite JB's apologizing profusely Jude finds he cannot forgive JB and Willem refuses to either. Only Malcolm remains friends with all the men.
While Jude continues to be professionally successful his friends and family question his lack of romantic relationships as he enters his forties. Willem confesses to being baffled that he does not even know if Jude is gay or straight. Feeling alone Jude begins a relationship with a fashion executive named Caleb he meets at a friend's dinner party. Caleb is disgusted by Jude's limp and increasing use of his wheelchair and the relationship quickly becomes physically as well as emotionally abusive. Jude finally breaks off the relationship after Caleb rapes him, but Caleb stalks him, meeting him a final time and humiliating him at a dinner he has with Harold and then beating and raping him in his apartment. Jude refuses to report Caleb for what he has done and ultimately only Harold and Jude's doctor Andy know the truth of the relationship.
Although Jude's body manages to heal the rapes cause him to flashback to his childhood where he was repeatedly raped and eventually forced into prostitution. Jude finally decides to kill himself but is unsuccessful. As a result, Willem comes back home and begins to live with him again. Jude continues to refuse therapy but begins to tell Willem the least traumatic stories about his childhood which Willem finds disturbing and horrifying.
As they continue to live together Willem begins to feel that he is falling in love with Jude and wants a relationship with him. He eventually does start a relationship with Jude and Jude is happier than he has ever been before. However Jude continues to have difficulty telling Willem the worst of his childhood and also has problems being intimate with Willem. He eventually forces himself to submit to sex with Willem but continues to hate it and begins cutting himself more than ever. In an attempt to curb his cutting, Jude decides to burn himself, giving himself a third degree burn that requires a skin graft. The wound is so severe that Jude's private physician Andy tells him he must inform Willem or he will. However, before Jude can tell Willem Andy accidentally divulges the information. Willem is horrified, but after a difficult fight Jude finally confesses to Willem that he does not enjoy sex and tells him about the years of sexual and physical abuse he endured. He also reveals that the damage to his legs was caused by a Dr. Traylor, who picked him up and held him captive for 12 weeks when he was 15 and eventually ran him over with his car.
After Jude's revelation that he does not enjoy sex Willem begins sleeping with women but maintains his romantic relationship with Jude. The two settle into a comfortable life together which is shaken when Jude's legs become worse and he must reluctantly amputate. Over the course of a few years Jude manages to learn to walk again with his new prosthetics. Willem dubs this period in their life "The Happy Years", however while picking up Malcolm and his wife from the train station, Willem is involved in a car accident with a drunk driver which kills all three passengers.
With Willem dead Jude descends once again into self-destructive habits, losing such an excessive amount of weight that his friends and family stage an intervention. Though they are able to get him to gain weight and to attend therapy he eventually succeeds in committing suicide.
The novel received positive reviews from The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications.
In The Atlantic, Garth Greenwell suggested that A Little Life is “the long-awaited gay novel”: “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.”
In the London Review of Books, Christian Lorentzen referred to the main character's "gothic inverted fairytale origins" and "ghastly litany of childhood sexual abuse." The characters, he wrote, "seem like stereotypical middle-class strivers plucked out of 1950s cinema." He asked in regard to a minor character who became a crystal meth addict, "What real person trapped in this novel wouldn't become a drug addict?"
Yanagihara appeared on Seth Meyers's Late Night with Seth Meyers to discuss the work. In July 2015, the book was selected as a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and made the shortlist of six books in September 2015.2015 Man Booker Prize, shortlist
2015 National Book Award for Fiction, finalist
2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, shortlist
2015 Kirkus Prize in Fiction, won