• Skip to main content
  • Keyboard shortcuts for audio player

Fresh Air

Book Reviews

  • LISTEN & FOLLOW
  • Apple Podcasts
  • Google Podcasts
  • Amazon Music

Your support helps make our show possible and unlocks access to our sponsor-free feed.

'A Little Life': An Unforgettable Novel About The Grace Of Friendship

thumbnail

John Powers

A Little Life

A Little Life

Buy featured book.

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

  • Independent Bookstores

America is hooked on stories of redemption and rebirth, be it Cheryl Strayed rediscovering herself by hiking the Pacific Trail or the late David Carr pulling himself out of the crack-house and into The New York Times . We just love tales about healing.

But how far should we trust them? That's one of the many questions raised by A Little Life , a new novel by Hanya Yanagihara, whose acclaimed debut, The People in the Trees , came from seemingly nowhere 18 months ago. This new book is long, page-turny, deeply moving, sometimes excessive, but always packed with the weight of a genuine experience . As I was reading, I literally dreamed about it every night.

The book follows three decades in the life of four friends from a posh college. There's the kindhearted actor, Willem, and the self-centered artist, JB, of Haitian stock. There's the timorous would-be architect, Malcolm, born of a wealthy, mixed-race family and the handsome, lame Jude, a brilliant attorney addicted to cutting himself. As the book begins, they've moved to New York to make their fortune, and over the next 700 pages — yes, 700 — we watch them rise, lose their bearings, fall in love, slide into squabbles and wrestle with life's inevitable tragedies.

Yanagihara has a keen eye for social detail, and reading her early riff on actors like Willem who work as waiters, you may think she's offering something familiar — a generational portrait like Mary McCarthy's The Group or the witty, emblematic realism of Jonathan Franzen. In fact, the book's apparent normalcy lures you into the woods of something darker, stranger and more harrowing. Turns out that everything largely orbits around one of the four, Jude, whose gothic past Yanagihara slowly reveals.

For those who want trigger warnings, consider yourself warned — Jude's tale has enough triggers for a Texas gun show. The poor guy may endure the harshest childhood in fiction, one that's equal parts Dickens, Sade and Grimm's Fairy Tales . Evidently named for the patron saint of the hopeless and despairing, Jude is treated so badly that I flashed back to my mom reading me the book Beautiful Joe , about a dog so cruelly abused that I melted into inconsolable weeping.

a little life book reviews

Hanya Yanagihara's acclaimed debut, The People in the Trees , was released 18 months ago. Sam Levy/Courtesy of Doubleday hide caption

Hanya Yanagihara's acclaimed debut, The People in the Trees , was released 18 months ago.

Yanagihara writes with even more trenchant precision about the scars on the adult Jude's soul — the self-hatred and self-destructiveness, the yearning for love laced with utter mistrust, the baroque defense mechanisms he erects to keep anyone from learning who he really is. He struggles again and again, in long frustrating detail, to recover from his past, along with support from his friends, his doctor, Andy, and his law-school mentor, Harold, who becomes a father figure.

Now, I should also warn you that these struggles become too much, as sometimes happens with a John Cassavetes movie. Readers will be ready to move on, even if Jude is not. Then again, the book's driven obsessiveness is inseparable from the emotional force that will leave countless readers weeping.

Besides, Jude's condition is Yanagihara's way of exploring larger issues. Even as the book pointedly challenges the neat, happy arc of popular redemption stories — "People don't change," Jude decides — it calls on our imaginative sympathy. Yanagihara is fascinated by how we understand minds very different from our own. Here, Jude's ghastly history puts him in a mental universe that his friends — and readers — must work to enter. Not that this is impossible, mind you. He's no alien. Jude's guardedness makes him the heightened embodiment of the secret private self we all have, with our own calming rituals, mental hideaways and escape hatches.

While A Little Life is shot through with pain, it's far from being all dark. Jude's suffering finds its equipoise in the decency and compassion of those who love him; the book is a wrenching portrait of the enduring grace of friendship. With her sensitivity to everything from the emotional nuance to the play of light inside a subway car, Yanagihara is superb at capturing the radiant moments of beauty, warmth and kindness that help redeem the bad stuff. In A Little Life , it's life's evanescent blessings that maybe, but only maybe, can save you.

Profile Picture

  • ADMIN AREA MY BOOKSHELF MY DASHBOARD MY PROFILE SIGN OUT SIGN IN

avatar

Awards & Accolades

Readers Vote

Our Verdict

Our Verdict

Kirkus Reviews' Best Books Of 2015

Kirkus Prize

Kirkus Prize winner

National Book Award Finalist

Next book

A LITTLE LIFE

by Hanya Yanagihara ‧ RELEASE DATE: March 10, 2015

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara ( The People in the Trees , 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 21, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

GENERAL FICTION

Share your opinion of this book

More by Hanya Yanagihara

TO PARADISE

BOOK REVIEW

by Hanya Yanagihara

THE PEOPLE IN THE TREES

More About This Book

Best Books of 2015: Hanya Yanagihara

PERSPECTIVES

The Year in Fiction

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

by Harper Lee ‧ RELEASE DATE: July 11, 1960

A first novel, this is also a first person account of Scout's (Jean Louise) recall of the years that led to the ending of a mystery, the breaking of her brother Jem's elbow, the death of her father's enemy — and the close of childhood years. A widower, Atticus raises his children with legal dispassion and paternal intelligence, and is ably abetted by Calpurnia, the colored cook, while the Alabama town of Maycomb, in the 1930's, remains aloof to their divergence from its tribal patterns. Scout and Jem, with their summer-time companion, Dill, find their paths free from interference — but not from dangers; their curiosity about the imprisoned Boo, whose miserable past is incorporated in their play, results in a tentative friendliness; their fears of Atticus' lack of distinction is dissipated when he shoots a mad dog; his defense of a Negro accused of raping a white girl, Mayella Ewell, is followed with avid interest and turns the rabble whites against him. Scout is the means of averting an attack on Atticus but when he loses the case it is Boo who saves Jem and Scout by killing Mayella's father when he attempts to murder them. The shadows of a beginning for black-white understanding, the persistent fight that Scout carries on against school, Jem's emergence into adulthood, Calpurnia's quiet power, and all the incidents touching on the children's "growing outward" have an attractive starchiness that keeps this southern picture pert and provocative. There is much advance interest in this book; it has been selected by the Literary Guild and Reader's Digest; it should win many friends.

Pub Date: July 11, 1960

ISBN: 0060935464

Page Count: 323

Publisher: Lippincott

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1960

More by Harper Lee

GO SET A WATCHMAN

by Harper Lee

The Snowy Day Is NYC Library’s Most Popular Book

SEEN & HEARD

ALA Releases List of 2020’s Most Challenged Books

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

by J.D. Salinger ‧ RELEASE DATE: June 15, 1951

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen ) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

More by J.D. Salinger

RAISE HIGH THE ROOF BEAM, CARPENTERS AND SEYMOUR

by J.D. Salinger

Salinger Focus of NYPL Exhibit

APPRECIATIONS

  • Discover Books Fiction Thriller & Suspense Mystery & Detective Romance Science Fiction & Fantasy Nonfiction Biography & Memoir Teens & Young Adult Children's
  • News & Features Bestsellers Book Lists Profiles Perspectives Awards Seen & Heard Book to Screen Kirkus TV videos In the News
  • Kirkus Prize Winners & Finalists About the Kirkus Prize Kirkus Prize Judges
  • Magazine Current Issue All Issues Manage My Subscription Subscribe
  • Writers’ Center Hire a Professional Book Editor Get Your Book Reviewed Advertise Your Book Launch a Pro Connect Author Page Learn About The Book Industry
  • More Kirkus Diversity Collections Kirkus Pro Connect My Account/Login
  • About Kirkus History Our Team Contest FAQ Press Center Info For Publishers
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms & Conditions
  • Reprints, Permission & Excerpting Policy

© Copyright 2024 Kirkus Media LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Go To Top

Popular in this Genre

Close Quickview

Hey there, book lover.

We’re glad you found a book that interests you!

Please select an existing bookshelf

Create a new bookshelf.

We can’t wait for you to join Kirkus!

Please sign up to continue.

It’s free and takes less than 10 seconds!

Already have an account? Log in.

Sign in with Google

Trouble signing in? Retrieve credentials.

Almost there!

  • Industry Professional

Welcome Back!

Sign in using your Kirkus account

Contact us: 1-800-316-9361 or email [email protected].

Don’t fret. We’ll find you.

Magazine Subscribers ( How to Find Your Reader Number )

If You’ve Purchased Author Services

Don’t have an account yet? Sign Up.

a little life book reviews

Things you buy through our links may earn  Vox Media  a commission.

Hanya’s Boys

The novelist tends to torture her gay male characters — but only so she can swoop in to save them..

Portrait of Andrea Long Chu

This article was featured in One Great Story , New York ’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly.

By the time you finish reading A Little Life, you will have spent a whole book waiting for a man to kill himself. The novel, the second from author Hanya Yanagihara, begins as a light chronicle of male friendship among four college graduates in New York City before narrowing its focus to Jude, a corporate litigator whose decades-long struggle to repress a childhood of unrelenting torments — he was raised by pedophiles in a monastery, kidnapped and prostituted in motels, molested by counselors at an orphanage, kidnapped again, tortured, raped, starved, and run over with a car — ends in his suicide.

An unlikely beach read with a gothic riptide, A Little Life became a massive best seller in 2015. Critics lavished praise on the book, with one declaring it the long-awaited “great gay novel” for its unsparing approach to Jude, who falls in love with his male best friend. (A rare pan in The New York Review of Books prompted an indignant letter from Yanagihara’s editor.) A Little Life would go on to win the Kirkus Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize; it has since been adapted for the stage by the celebrated director Ivo van Hove, and last month, readers of the New York Times nominated it next to finalists like Beloved and 1984 for best book of the past 125 years.

But Yanagihara’s motivations remained mysterious. The author was born in Los Angeles to a third-generation Hawaiian Japanese father and a Seoul-born Korean mother; her father, a hematologist-oncologist, moved the family around the country for work. She has lived in Manhattan since her 20s, but her heart is in Tokyo and Hawaii. (She has called the last “the closest thing that Asian Americans have to Harlem.”) Her first novel, The People in the Trees, about a doctor who discovers immortality on an island paradise, was well but quietly received in 2013. That book featured homosexuality and pedophilia; not until A Little Life would these be revealed as consistent preoccupations. The People in the Trees took Yanagihara 18 years to write, off and on, during which time she worked as a publicist, book editor, and magazine writer. A Little Life, which she wrote while an editor at large at Condé Nast Traveler, took only 18 months.

How to explain this novel’s success? The critic Parul Sehgal recently suggested A Little Life as a prominent example of the “ trauma plot ” — fiction that uses a traumatic backstory as a shortcut to narrative. Indeed, it’s easy to see Jude as a “vivified DSM entry” perfectly crafted to appeal to “a world infatuated with victimhood.” But Jude hates words like abuse and disabled and refuses to see a therapist for most of the novel, while Yanagihara has skeptically compared talk therapy to “scooping out your brain and placing it into someone else’s cupped palms to prod at.” (Jude’s sickest torturer turns out to be a psychiatrist.) More compelling about A Little Life — and vexing and disturbing — is the author’s omnipresence in the novel, not just as the “perverse intelligence” behind Jude’s trauma, in the words of another critic, but as the possessive presence keeping him, against all odds, alive. A Little Life was rightly called a love story; what critics missed was that its author is one of the lovers.

This is Yanagihara’s principle: If true misery exists, then so might true love. That simple idea, childlike in its brutality, informs all her fiction. Indeed, the author appears unable, or unwilling, to conceive love outside of life support; without suffering, the inherent monstrosity of love — its greed, its destructiveness — cannot be justified. This notion is inchoate in The People in the Trees , which features several characters kept on the brink of death and ends with a rapist’s declaration of love. In A Little Life, it blossoms into the anguished figure of Jude and the saintlike circle of friends who adore him. In Yanagihara’s new novel, To Paradise, which tells three tales of people fleeing one broken utopia for another, the misery principle has become airborne, passing aerosol-like from person to person while retaining its essential purpose — to allow the author to insert herself as a sinister kind of caretaker, poisoning her characters in order to nurse them lovingly back to health.

Two years after A Little Life was published, Yanagihara joined T magazine, the New York Times ’s monthly style insert, as editor. She has called the publication “a culture magazine masquerading as a fashion magazine” — though you’ll have to sift through many pages of luxury advertisements to confirm that. During her time at Condé Nast Traveler , the publication sent her on a staggering 12-country, 24-city, 45-day, $60,000 journey from Sri Lanka to Japan for a 2013 issue called, incredibly, “The Grand Tour of Asia.” “A trip to India isn’t complete without a stop at the legendary Gem Palace,” she wrote in a photo spread titled “The Plunder,” “and a few souvenir diamonds” — four diamond bangles, to be exact, priced up to $900 each. “When we wear a piece of custom jewelry ,” she once told readers of T , “we are adding ourselves to a legacy as old as the Romans, the Greeks, the Persians — older.”

This may be surprising. But it is easy to forget that A Little Life is an unapologetic lifestyle novel. Jude’s harrowing trials are finger-sandwiched between Lower East Side gallery openings, summers on Cape Cod, holiday in Hanoi. Critics remarked on its mouthwatering (or eye-rolling) spread of culinary delights, from duck à l’orange to escarole salad with pears and jamón, followed by pine-nut tart, tarte Tatin, and a homemade ten-nut cake Yanagihara later described as a cross between Danish rugbrød and a Japanese milk bread she once ordered at a Tokyo bakery. The book inspired celebrity chef Antoni Porowski to publish a recipe called “Gougères for Jude,” based on the canapés Jude makes for a New Year’s party before cutting his arms so badly he requires emergency medical attention; it can be found on the website for Boursin, the French herbed-cheese brand .

Indeed, Yanagihara’s onslaught of horrors could allow readers to block out, like a childhood trauma, the fact that they were reading luxury copy. Her first book was quite literally a travelogue written by a pedophile; in To Paradise, Yanagihara has not lost the familiar voice of a professional chronicler of wealth. Here are rose-hued Oriental carpets, dark-green douppioni-silk drapes, wood floors polished with macadamia oil; here are wok-fried snow peas, ginger-wine syllabub, a pine-nut tart (another one!). As in A Little Life, Yanagihara cannot help giving cheerful directions as she maneuvers her characters, tour guide–like, through New York. “We’ll cut across Christopher, and then go past Little Eight and east on Ninth Street before turning south on Fifth Avenue,” a minor character proposes during a crisis.

Perhaps I am being ungenerous. Surely novelists should describe things! Better, they should evoke them, like the dead, or the Orient. Yanagihara has a tourist’s eye for detail; this can make her a very engaging narrator. Here’s that holiday in Hanoi from A Little Life :

“[He] turned down an alley that was crowded with stall after stall of small, improvised restaurants, just a woman standing behind a kettle roiling with soup or oil, and four or five plastic stools … [He] let a man cycle past him, the basket strapped to the back of his seat loaded with spears of baguettes … and then headed down another alley, this one busy with vendors crouched over more bundles of herbs, and black hills of mangosteens, and metal trays of silvery-pink fish, so fresh he could hear them gulping.”

Now here’s days 23 and 24 of that “Grand Tour of Asia” from Condé Nast Traveler :

“You’ll see all the little tableaux … that make Hanoi the place it is: dozens of pho stands, with their big cauldrons of simmering broth … bicyclists pedaling by with basketfuls of fresh-baked bread; and, especially, those little street restaurants with their low tables and domino-shaped stools … [The next day] you’ll pass hundreds of stalls selling everything for the Vietnamese table, from mung bean noodles to homemade fish paste to Kaffir limes, as well as vendors crouched over hubcap-size baskets of mangoes, silkworms, and fish so fresh they’re still gulping for air.”

Now it is no crime to put your paid vacation into your novel. My point is simply that Yanagihara remains at heart a travel writer, if not an unreconstructed one. She seems to sense that wealth can be tilted, like a stone, to reveal the wriggling muck beneath. In a few cases, she is even making a political point, as with her abiding interest in the colonization of Hawaii. But more often in these books, wealth’s rotten underbelly is purely psychological: There are no wrongful beach houses in A Little Life, no ill-gotten hors d’oeuvre. Luxury is simply the backdrop for Jude’s extraordinary suffering, neither cause nor effect; if anything, the latter lends poignancy to the former. This was Yanagihara’s first discovery, the one that cracked open the cobbled streets of Soho and let something terrible slither out — the idea that misery bestows a kind of dignity that wealth and leisure, no matter how sharply rendered on the page, simply cannot.

To Paradise is not a novel at all. It is three books bound into a single volume: a novella, a brace of short stories, and a full-length novel. The conceit is that its three tales are set in 1893, 1993, and 2093 in alternate versions of a Washington Square townhouse. The first is a Henry James–esque period romance: David, a wealthy scion with a secret history of nervous breakdowns, rejects a proposal from the boring Charles to flee west with roguish pauper Edward. The second, a weird postcolonial fable, finds gay paralegal David hosting a dinner party with his older HIV-positive boyfriend, Charles, in honor of a terminally ill friend, while David’s father, the rightful king of Hawaii, lies dying in a psychiatric facility. The third book, the novel-length one, is a fitful attempt at speculative fiction complete with surveillance drones (“Flies”), boring names (“Zone Eight”), and a biodome over Central Park. In this New York ravaged by a century of pandemics, brain-damaged lab tech Charlie discovers her husband Edward’s infidelity, while her grandfather, a brilliant virologist, reveals his role in creating the current totalitarian government. (In a desultory bid to sew the three parts together, Yanagihara has given multiple characters the same name, without their being biologically or, indeed, meaningfully related.)

The third part of To Paradise may sound topical, but Yanagihara has a lifelong fascination with disease. She was a self-described “sickly child” whose father used to take her to a morgue where a pathologist would show her the cadavers, folding back the skin flaps like flower petals so the young girl could sketch their insides. Years later, The People in the Trees would center on a zoonotic disease that extends the sufferer’s life span while rapidly degrading cognitive function. In A Little Life, Jude’s history of abuse is equally a nutrient-rich soil for infection: his venereal diseases, acquired from clients; his cutting, which results in septicemia; his maimed legs, which, after decades of vascular ulcers and osteomyelitis, must finally be amputated. That’s to say nothing of the many minor characters in the novel who are summarily dispatched by strokes, heart attacks, multiple sclerosis, all kinds of cancer, and something called Nishihara syndrome, a neurodegenerative disease so rare the author had to make it up.

Like its predecessor, To Paradise is a book in which horrible things happen to people for no reason. The agents of misery this time have become literally inhuman: cancer, HIV, epilepsy, functional neurologic disorder, a toxic antiviral drug, the unidentified viral hemorrhagic fever that will fuel the next pandemic. A virus makes perfect sense as Yanagihara’s final avatar after three novels. The anguish it visits on humanity — illness, death, social collapse — is just an indifferent side effect of its pointless reproductive cycle. Biologists do not even agree on whether viruses are living organisms. A virus wants nothing, feels nothing, knows nothing; at most, a virus is a little life.

This is ideal for Yanagihara: pure suffering, undiluted by politics or psychology, by history or language or even sex. Free of meaning, it may more perfectly serve the author’s higher purpose. Reading A Little Life, one can get the impression that Yanagihara is somewhere high above with a magnifying glass, burning her beautiful boys like ants. In truth, Jude is a terribly unlovable character, always lying and breaking promises, with the inner monologue of an incorrigible child. The first time he cuts himself, you are horrified; the 600th time, you wish he would aim. Yet Yanagihara loves him excessively, cloyingly. The book’s omniscient narrator seems to be protecting Jude, cradling him in her cocktail-party asides and winding digressions, keeping him alive for a stunning 800 pages. This is not sadism; it is closer to Munchausen by proxy.

Yanagihara provides a perfect image for this kind of love. Jude’s lover, Willem, trying to prevent him from cutting himself, hugs Jude so tightly he can barely breathe. “Pretend we’re falling and we’re clinging together from fear,” Willem tells him; for a brief moment, the fiction of imminent death cuts through Jude’s self-loathing and allows him to crumple helplessly into his lover’s suffocating embrace. As he loses consciousness, Jude imagines them falling all the way to the earth’s core, where the fires melt them into a single being whom even death cannot part.

If disease is Yanagihara’s angel of death, gay men are her perfect patients. The majority of her protagonists to date are gay men, or at least men-loving men, and she approaches them with a distinct preciousness. When Jude finally reveals the details of his horrific childhood to Willem, the two are lying on the floor of a literal closet. In A Little Life, this tendency could be fobbed off as a literary technique in line with Yanagihara’s stated desire to make the novel “operatic,” but in To Paradise, her sentimentality has begun weeping like a sore. “We could never be together in the West, Edward. Be sensible! It is dangerous to be like us out there,” pleads one David. “If we couldn’t live as who we are, then how could we be free?” Indeed, the entire first book of To Paradise is set in an alternate version of 19th-century New York preposterously founded on the freedom of love; you’ll forgive me for being unmoved, at this moment in history, by the heartbreak of marriage equality.

And then there is the matter of AIDS. It’s true that To Paradise is not an AIDS novel; the actual crisis, which unfolds here just as it did in reality, is little more than a faint backdrop for a hundred pages. But this is only because Yanagihara appears to see all diseases as allegories for the human immunodeficiency virus. Charles’s ex-boyfriend Peter may only be dying of “boring old cancer, I’m afraid,” but the virus hovers over his farewell party and lingers through the novel’s succession of pandemics. The next Charles, persona non grata in a fascist state of his own design, will join other mildly oppressed gay men of New York in seeking love and support in a riverside rowhouse on Jane Street in the West Village — three blocks from the real-life AIDS memorial in Hudson River Park. This detail is mawkish in the extreme, a shameless attempt to trade on the enviable pathos of a disease transmitted through an act of love.

When A Little Life was first published, the novelist Garth Greenwell declared it “the most ambitious chronicle of the social and emotional lives of gay men to have emerged for many years,” praising Yanagihara for writing a novel about “queer suffering” that was about AIDS only in spirit. This was a curious claim for several reasons. First, many of the novel’s characters, including Willem and Jude, fail to identify as gay in the conventional sense. Second, Yanagihara herself is not gay, though she says she perfunctorily slept with women at Smith College. Indeed, if A Little Life was opera, it was not La Bohème ; it was Rent. Now perhaps the great gay novel should move beyond the strictures of identity politics; Yanagihara has stubbornly defended her “right to write about whatever I want.” God forbid that only gay men should write gay men — let a hundred flowers bloom. But if a white author were to write a novel with Asian American protagonists who, while resistant to identifying as Asian American, nonetheless inhabited an unmistakably Asian American milieu, it might occur to us to ask why.

Why, then? “I don’t know,” Yanagihara told one journalist. To another, she insisted, “I don’t think there’s anything inherent to the gay-male identity that interests me.” These are baffling, even offensive responses given that she has had almost a decade to come up with better ones. But I do not think Yanagihara, an author who believes in fiction as a conscious act of avoidance, is being dishonest. “A fiction writer can hide anything she wants in her fiction, a power that’s as liberating as it is imprisoning,” she has written, explaining her refusal to go to therapy despite the urging of her best friend, the man to whom A Little Life is dedicated and whose social circle inspired the book’s friendships. “As she grows more adept at it, however,” Yanagihara continues, “she may find she’s losing practice in the art of telling the truth about herself.”

That well may be. Regardless of Yanagihara’s private life, her work betrays a touristic kind of love for gay men. By exaggerating their vulnerability to humiliation and physical attack, she justifies a maternal posture of excessive protectiveness. This is not an act of dehumanization but the opposite. There is a horrible piety to Jude, named for the patron saint of lost causes; he has been force-fed sentimentality. When the author is not doling out this smothering sort of love through her male characters (Willem, for instance), she is enacting it at the level of her own narration. Indeed, the conspicuous absence of women in her fiction may well express Yanagihara’s tendency, as a writer, to hoard female subjectivity for herself.

This brings us to Charlie, a narrator in To Paradise and Yanagihara’s only female protagonist to date. Charlie is a technician who takes care of mouse embryos at an influenza lab in Zone Fifteen. The antiviral drug that saved her life as a child has left her affectless and naïve, pitifully incapable of comprehending the extent of her own loneliness. After Charlie is raped by two boys her age — the only rape in this whole book, if you can believe it — her grandfather Charles desperately tries to ensure her safety by marrying her off to a homosexual like himself. But it is with Charlie, who longs for her husband to touch her even as she knows he never will, that the sublimation of romantic love will finally slouch into despair. When Charlie follows him to a gay haven in the West Village, having discovered notes from his lover, she is heartbroken. “I knew I would never be loved,” Charlie thinks. “I knew I would never love, either.”

But this isn’t entirely true. After Charlie’s husband dies of an unknown illness, the only woman Yanagihara has ever asked readers to care about will lie next to his corpse and kiss him for the first time — the space between them closed, at last, by death.

There is no paradise for Charlie. The odd and tuneless phrase to paradise provides a destination but withholds any promise of arrival. Perhaps this is why Yanagihara has tacked it half-heartedly onto the last sentence of each of the novel’s three books. Doom shadows every character who decides to abandon one apocryphal heaven on earth for another: the plutocratic Northeast for the homophobic West, the colonized state of Hawaii for a delusional kingdom on the beach, totalitarian America for the unknown New Britain. Every paradise is a gossamer curtain; behind it lies a pit of squalor, disease, torture, madness, and tyranny. Freedom is a lie, safety is a lie, struggle is a lie; even the luxuries Yanagihara has spent her career recording are nothing in the end. For paradise, insofar as it means heaven, also means death.

Not even love will save Yanagihara’s characters. Her fantasies of suffering and illness are designed only to produce a very specific kind of love, and this love is not curative but palliative — it results, sooner or later, in the death of the thing. If this is fatalism, it is not the sanguine fatalism of Prospero, another rightful king on another island paradise, reminding his audience that “we are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” No, it is the exsanguinating fatalism of Jude, who, out of love for his boyfriend, will try to show “a little life” — a phrase he learned from his pimp — while Willem makes love to his reluctant body. The same phrase appears in The People in the Trees, where it describes the bleak vegetative state that befalls the islanders whose disease has stretched out their life spans. In To Paradise, Charles reflects on a set of immune-compromised twins, explaining that he never became a clinician because he “was never convinced that life — its saving, its extension, its return — was definitively the best outcome.” The twins die, possibly by suicide, and Charles goes on to design death camps. “There’s a point,” Yanagihara once said of Jude, at which “it becomes too late to help some people.”

These are difficult words to read for those of us who have passed through suicidal ideation and emerged, if not happy to be alive, then relieved not to be dead. It is indeed a tourist’s imagination that would glance out from its hotel window onto the squalor below and conclude that death is the opposite of paradise, as if the locals did not live their little lives on the expansive middle ground between the two. But even Yanagihara’s novels are not death camps; they are hospice centers. A Little Life, like life itself, goes on and on. Hundreds of pages into the novel, Jude openly wonders why he is still alive, the beloved of a lonely god. For that is the meaning of suffering: to make love possible. Charles loves David; David loves Edward; David loves Charles; Charlie loves Edward; Jude loves Willem; Hanya loves Jude; misery loves company.

  • vulture homepage lede
  • book review
  • close reads
  • one great story
  • new york magazine
  • hanya yanagihara
  • the best of vulture

Most Viewed Stories

  • Cinematrix No. 110: July 14, 2024
  • The 16 Best Movies and TV Shows to Watch This Weekend
  • House of the Dragon Recap: Just Meat
  • Zach Bryan Hits His Limit
  • The Disappearing of Rose Hanbury
  • What’s Going on With the Cast of Charmed ?
  • Every Woody Harrelson Movie Performance, Ranked

Editor’s Picks

a little life book reviews

Most Popular

What is your email.

This email will be used to sign into all New York sites. By submitting your email, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy and to receive email correspondence from us.

Sign In To Continue Reading

Create your free account.

Password must be at least 8 characters and contain:

  • Lower case letters (a-z)
  • Upper case letters (A-Z)
  • Numbers (0-9)
  • Special Characters (!@#$%^&*)

As part of your account, you’ll receive occasional updates and offers from New York , which you can opt out of anytime.

UK Edition Change

  • UK Politics
  • News Videos
  • Paris 2024 Olympics
  • Rugby Union
  • Sport Videos
  • John Rentoul
  • Mary Dejevsky
  • Andrew Grice
  • Sean O’Grady
  • Photography
  • Theatre & Dance
  • Culture Videos
  • Fitness & Wellbeing
  • Food & Drink
  • Health & Families
  • Royal Family
  • Electric Vehicles
  • Car Insurance Deals
  • Lifestyle Videos
  • UK Hotel Reviews
  • News & Advice
  • Simon Calder
  • Australia & New Zealand
  • South America
  • C. America & Caribbean
  • Middle East
  • Politics Explained
  • News Analysis
  • Today’s Edition
  • Home & Garden
  • Broadband deals
  • Fashion & Beauty
  • Travel & Outdoors
  • Sports & Fitness
  • Sustainable Living
  • Climate Videos
  • Solar Panels
  • Behind The Headlines
  • On The Ground
  • Decomplicated
  • You Ask The Questions
  • Binge Watch
  • Travel Smart
  • Watch on your TV
  • Crosswords & Puzzles
  • Most Commented
  • Newsletters
  • Ask Me Anything
  • Virtual Events
  • Betting Sites
  • Online Casinos
  • Wine Offers

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in Please refresh your browser to be logged in

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara - Book review: Over the top, beyond the pale, and quite simply unforgettable

Picador - £16.99, article bookmarked.

Find your bookmarks in your Independent Premium section, under my profile

Breaking News

For free real time breaking news alerts sent straight to your inbox sign up to our breaking news emails

Sign up to our free breaking news emails, thanks for signing up to the breaking news email.

Hanya Yanagihara’s debut, The People in the Trees, was a brilliant, devastating if chilly novel, that confronted the worst excesses of male hubris through restraint and excision. Yanagihara’s follow-up, which has justly been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, approaches similar subject matter – masculinity, violence, secrets – but from the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. Just about every one of A Little Life’s 700 pages is saturated with trauma: child abuse, rape, domestic violence, dysfunctional families, addiction, self-harm, suicide, grief. If Emo musicians needed a literary masterpiece, then A Little Life is it.

The effect is all the more heightened after the novel’s opening, which describes a touching, even nostalgia-tinged love square between handsome actor Willem, volatile artist-in-waiting J B, Malcolm who is privileged, steady but anxious, and Jude, the enigma within this novel’s riddle.

About a quarter of the way in, J B and Malcolm retreat from the limelight, which burns ever more brightly on Willem and blindingly on Jude. What you make of the novel very much depends on how you feel about Yanagihara’s hero, an orphan who has survived a devastating childhood but whose heart-breaking past is withheld from reader and friends alike.

Jude’s duplicity is helped by the conspicuous nature of his material success. A poster boy for the American Dream, he earns a fairy tale education, fairy tale friends, fairy tale Manhattan job, fairy tale apartment, and finally a fairy tale boyfriend: Willem, by now an Oscar-winning millionaire movie star.

The clarity of Yanagihara’s prose is perfect for dissecting blind ambition, the consolations of work and money, and how these paper over the cracks of fragile, fractured individuals. So it is with Jude, a self-harmer whose wrecked body can hardly withstand the incisions he makes.

One could read the persistence of these self-soothing rituals as a fable of the hollowness of America’s pursuit of happiness. Interior decoration can spruce up a downtown loft, but does nothing to touch Jude’s inner self-loathing. But what makes A Little Life so powerful, unsettling and occasionally infuriating is Jude’s imperviousness to the love of his friends. Jude demands that we ask whether life is always worth living, whether some wounds are so deep as to be unrepairable.

If Yanagihara writes sharply on external rewards of accomplishment, her chiaroscuro style is even more unflinching when detailing Jude’s secret world of violence. “Before he had been taught to cut himself, there was a period in which he would toss himself against the wall outside … again and again until he sagged, exhausted, to the ground, and his left side was permanently stained blue and purple and brown with bruises.”

The percussive over-abundance of that sentence (“and ... and ... and ...”) might describe A Little Life as a whole. The reader too will sag exhausted to the ground, overwhelmed by how much pain one human can endure. I shared the frustrations of Jude’s adoring friends, but like them I could not look away, so completely did Yanagihara’s world convince.

Proof that sometimes in art more really is more, A Little Life is unlike anything else out there. Over the top, beyond the pale and quite simply unforgettable. Whether it makes the Man Booker shortlist – and it really should – this parable of modern life will last long after the winner is crowned.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Subscribe to Independent Premium to bookmark this article

Want to bookmark your favourite articles and stories to read or reference later? Start your Independent Premium subscription today.

New to The Independent?

Or if you would prefer:

Want an ad-free experience?

Hi {{indy.fullName}}

  • My Independent Premium
  • Account details
  • Help centre
  • Member Login
  • Library Patron Login

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR

FREE NEWSLETTERS

Search: Title Author Article Search String:

Reviews of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Summary | Excerpt | Reviews | Beyond the book | Read-Alikes | Genres & Themes | Author Bio

A Little Life

by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Critics' Opinion:

Readers' Opinion:

  • Literary Fiction
  • New England, USA
  • New York State
  • Contemporary
  • Coming of Age
  • Mid-Life Onwards
  • Dealing with Loss
  • Adult-YA Crossover Fiction
  • Asian Authors
  • Top 20 Best Books of 2015

Rate this book

a little life book reviews

About this Book

Book summary.

Brace yourself for the most astonishing, challenging, upsetting, and profoundly moving book in many a season. An epic about love and friendship in the twenty-first century that goes into some of the darkest places fiction has ever traveled and yet somehow improbably breaks through into the light. Truly an amazement - and a great gift for its publisher. When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he'll not only be unable to overcome - but that will define his life forever. In rich and resplendent prose, Yanagihara has fashioned a tragic and transcendent hymn to brotherly love, a masterful depiction of heartbreak, and a dark examination of the tyranny of memory and the limits of human endurance.

The eleventh apartment had only one closet, but it did have a sliding glass door that opened onto a small balcony, from which he could see a man sitting across the way, outdoors in only a T-shirt and shorts even though it was October, smoking. Willem held up a hand in greeting to him, but the man didn't wave back. In the bedroom, Jude was accordioning the closet door, opening and shutting it, when Willem came in. "There's only one closet," he said. "That's okay," Willem said. "I have nothing to put in it anyway." "Neither do I." They smiled at each other. The agent from the building wandered in after them. "We'll take it," Jude told her. But back at the agent's office, they were told they couldn't rent the apartment after all. "Why not?" Jude asked her. "You don't make enough to cover six months' rent, and you don't have anything in savings," said the agent, suddenly terse. She had checked their credit and their bank accounts and had at last ...

  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Media Reviews

Reader reviews, bookbrowse review.

"The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there." These memorable opening lines might belong to another brilliant novel ( The Go-Between , by L. P. Hartley) but they could well form the essential scaffolding for A Little Life , a wrenching yet illuminating exploration of how child abuse can exert a suffocating grip on adulthood... continued

Full Review (924 words) This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access, become a member today .

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte ).

Write your own review!

Beyond the Book

Novels that feature close-knit friends.

One of the many astute portrayals in A Little Life is the closely knit group of friends to which Jude St. Francis, the haunted protagonist, belongs. While the literal coming-of-age happens during the teen years, it could be argued that college, for those who attend, is the real deal. It is a transformative experience for most people, and they forge friendships that form an essential support network when they are cast out into the real world. These relationships are more than the rose-colored variety as depicted by television sitcoms such as Friends . Indeed A Little Life follows its core group: Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm, over the course of three decades showing how the course of a life can bruise or fortify friendships. Here are some ...

This "beyond the book" feature is available to non-members for a limited time. Join today for full access.

Read-Alikes

  • Genres & Themes

If you liked A Little Life, try these:

Romantic Comedy jacket

Romantic Comedy

by Curtis Sittenfeld

Published 2024

About this book

More by this author

A comedy writer thinks she's sworn off love, until a dreamy pop star flips the script on all her assumptions—a hilarious, observant, and deeply tender novel from the New York Times bestselling author of Eligible , Rodham , and Prep .

Love in the Big City jacket

Love in the Big City

by Sang Young Park

Published 2022

A funny, transporting, surprising, and poignant novel that was one of the highest-selling debuts of recent years in Korea, Love in the Big City tells the story of a young gay man searching for happiness in the lonely city of Seoul.

Books with similar themes

Support bookbrowse.

Join our inner reading circle, go ad-free and get way more!

Find out more

Book Jacket: Mood Swings

BookBrowse Book Club

Book Jacket

Win This Book

Win The Bluestockings

The Bluestockings by Susannah Gibson

An illuminating group portrait of the eighteenth-century women who dared to imagine an active life for themselves in both mind and spirit.

Solve this clue:

and be entered to win..

Your guide to exceptional           books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

Subscribe to receive some of our best reviews, "beyond the book" articles, book club info and giveaways by email.

Free Weekly Newsletters

Keep up with what's happening in the world of books: reviews, previews, interviews and more.

Spam Free : Your email is never shared with anyone; opt out any time.

A Little Life : The Great Gay Novel Might Be Here

Hanya Yanagihara’s novel is an astonishing and ambitious chronicle of queer life in America.

a little life book reviews

In a 2013 essay for Salon , the culture writer Daniel D’Addario lamented the absence of a big, ambitious novel about gay life in America today. While the number of LGBT characters in mainstream novels has increased, he argued, they’re too often relegated to subplots or “window dressing,” their lives left “sketchy and oblique.” D’Addario surveyed a number of prominent gay writers about his thesis, and the next day Tyler Coates summarized their views for Flavorwire in a piece titled “ The Great Gay Novel is Never Going to Happen .”

Recommended Reading

Illustration with microscope image of the EBV virus

The Puzzling Virus That Infects Almost Everyone

illustration of "The Mystery Machine"

The Secret of Scooby-Doo ’s Enduring Appeal

An illustration of a boy watching a couple from the distance.

Dear Therapist: My Roommate Is Cheating on Her Boyfriend With Me

But I think it’s possible that novel has happened, even if no one has quite realized it yet. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which was released in March, is one of the most buzzed-about books of the season, hailed as a “tour de force,” “extraordinary,” “elemental and irreducible,” “astonishing,” and the work of “ a major American novelist .” But no coverage of the book I’ve seen has discussed it as a novel fundamentally about gay lives—as the most ambitious chronicle of the social and emotional lives of gay men to have emerged for many years.

The book follows a group of four men—Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm—over three decades of friendship, from their years as college roommates to the heights of professional success. Three of them form their primary physical and emotional bonds with other men, though sometimes in ways that challenge the usual nomenclatures. Of the novel’s main characters, only JB unambiguously embodies an immediately recognizable and unambivalent gay identity. Willem spends much of his adulthood pursuing sexual relationships with women, before he recognizes his desire for Jude and acknowledges their friendship as a life partnership. In college, JB calls Jude “the Postman” because he seems to entirely escape the usual categories: “We never see him with anyone, we don’t know what race he is, we don’t know anything about him … [He’s] post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past.”

The complexity of the characters’ relationships to sexual identity is one way Yanagihara elevates them from mere “window dressing,” and I suspect it’s one reason A Little Life hasn’t been recognized as a book fundamentally about gay male experience. Another is that readers have come to expect such books to be written by gay men and to be at least plausibly confessional. From Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story (1982) to Justin Torres’ We the Animals (2011), novels about gay men and their lives have often been more or less easily mappable onto the author’s biography. In essays and interviews , Yanagihara has spoken of her desire instead to write across difference, exploring what she sees as specifically male friendships and emotional communication.

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. Her characters suffer relatively little anxiety about the public reception of their sexual identities—only Malcolm will be tormented by coming out, before realizing that in fact he’s straight—and HIV is conspicuously absent from the book’s weirdly ahistorical New York City.

But queer suffering is at the heart of A Little Life . The novel centers on Jude, who’s 16 when he arrives at an affluent New England college with only a backpack of baggy clothes. Parentless and horribly scarred, with his legs disfigured in an incident whose details he guards as closely as everything else about his past, he’s profoundly aware of his “extreme otherness.” The book slowly discloses luridly gothic episodes from his life before college, among them abandonment, childhood in a monastery, horrifying physical and sexual abuse, prostitution, and abduction. “You were made for this, Jude,” he’s told by the only adult he loves, a monk who betrays his trust, and Jude comes to believe that his suffering is a consequence of what he is: “He had been born, and left, and found, and used as he had been intended to be used.”

Jude’s childhood is an extreme iteration of the abandonment, exploitation, and abuse that remain endemic in the experience of queer young people. Recent discussion of that experience has been dominated by an affirmative narrative—“It Gets Better”—that may be true for most. But it isn’t true for Jude. Even as he acquires wealth and power, Jude’s sense of the logic of his life never changes. His self-loathing is shocking from the start, and only grows more abject: he is “a nothing,” “rotten,” “useless,” “ugly,” “a piece of junk,” “inhuman … deficient … disgusting.” “Every year, his right to humanness diminished,” he reflects late in the novel; “every year, he became less and less of a person.” After the abuse he has suffered, he will never be able to able to enjoy sex, even as he craves the physical and emotional intimacy he finds in his partnership with Willem.

Both the intensity of pain Jude endures and other aspects of his and his friends’ lives—each is brilliant, each becomes not just successful but famous—strain credulity, and while Yanagihara has insisted that the novel’s plot is “not, technically, implausible,” it’s clear that the book is after something other than strict realism. This has annoyed some critics. In The New York Times Book Review , Carol Anshaw accused the novel both of being “allegorical” in its disregard for social and historical reality, and of placing the reader in a voyeuristic attitude toward suffering that’s so baroque as to seem like “a contrivance.”

To understand the novel’s exaggeration and its intense, claustrophobic focus on its characters’ inner lives requires recognizing how it engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera . The book is scaled to the intensity of Jude’s inner life, and for long passages it forces the reader to experience a world that’s brutally warped by suffering. Again and again A Little Life conveys Jude’s sense of himself through elaborate metaphor: he is “a scrap of bloodied, muddied cloth,” “a blank, faceless prairie under whose yellow surface earthworms and beetles wriggled,” “a scooped out husk.” His memories are “hyenas,” his fear “a flock of flapping bats,” his self-hatred a “beast.” This language infects those closest to him, so that for Willem, learning about his childhood is “plunging an arm into the snake- and centipede-squirming muck of Jude’s past.” In its sometimes grueling descriptions of Jude’s self-harm and his perceptions of his own body, the book reminds readers of the long filiation between gay art and the freakish, the abnormal, the extreme—those aspects of queer culture we’ve been encouraged to forget in an era that’s increasingly embracing gay marriage and homonormativity.

This is not a register of feeling or expression readers are accustomed to in American literary fiction. Yanagihara has described the experience of writing the novel as “a fever dream,” and reading it induces a similar effect. Part of this is due to the novel’s structural conceit: In nearly every section, a present-moment scene is interrupted for dozens of pages by elaborate flashbacks, mimicking the way Jude’s past irrupts into his present. Combined with the novel’s emotional extremity and the tightness of its focus on Jude’s consciousness, this nonlinear structure produces a feeling of immersion that’s almost unprecedented in my experience as a reader.

The novel’s darkness is leavened by its portrayal of Jude’s friends, whose attempts to care for him inevitably recall the communities of care formed by LGBT people in response to the AIDS crisis. Each of Jude’s friends cares for him differently, uniquely: Malcolm by designing spaces that will accommodate his disability; JB by painting portraits “kinder than the eye alone would see”; Willem by being the one person to whom he can tell his entire history. They make innumerable accommodations to Jude’s daily needs; in periods of crisis, they monitor him, making sure he eats and doesn’t harm himself.

The book vigorously defends friendship as a primary relationship, as central as marriage to the making of lives and communities. “Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship?” Willem thinks early in the novel. “Why wasn’t it even better?” For Jude, his friends “had imagined his life for him … they had allowed him to believe in possibilities that he would never have conceived.” Their relationships with one another challenge categorization. “They were inventing their own type of relationship,” Willem thinks of Jude, “one that wasn't officially recognized by history or immortalized in poetry or song, but which felt truer and less constraining.”

These passages recall similar defenses of friendship from queer writers before the age of marriage equality, especially Edmund White. “And friendship will be elevated into the supreme consolation for this continuing tragedy, human existence,” White wrote in 1983, as he was beginning to understand both the scope of the AIDS crisis and the need for novel social arrangements to sustain queer communities through it.

“It might have been mawkish,” one character thinks about his feeling for Jude, “but it was also true.” This is the claim that animates A Little Life : that by violating the canons of current literary taste, by embracing melodrama and exaggeration and sentiment, it can access emotional truths denied more modest means of expression. 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.”

  • Biggest New Books
  • Non-Fiction
  • All Categories
  • First Readers Club Daily Giveaway
  • How It Works

a little life book reviews

A Little Life

a little life book reviews

Get the Book Marks Bulletin

Email address:

  • Categories Fiction Fantasy Graphic Novels Historical Horror Literary Literature in Translation Mystery, Crime, & Thriller Poetry Romance Speculative Story Collections Non-Fiction Art Biography Criticism Culture Essays Film & TV Graphic Nonfiction Health History Investigative Journalism Memoir Music Nature Politics Religion Science Social Sciences Sports Technology Travel True Crime

July 8 – 12, 2024

spanish civil war

  • The influence of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia on Noam Chomsky
  • Isabella Stuart on Sheila Heti and the “I”
  • How do celebrity book clubs actually work?

Please enable JavaScript in your web browser to get the best experience.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

  • Go to our Facebook page.
  • Go to our Twitter page.
  • Go to our Instagram page.
  • Go to our YouTube page.
  • Go to our TikTok page.

Reading guide: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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

This reading guide is printer friendly

Written by Donna Mackay-Smith

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.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

About the author

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 .

Hanya Yanagihara

The main characters

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. 

        View this post on Instagram                       A post shared by A Little Life: A Novel (@alittlelifebook)

What the critics said

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’

Questions and discussion points

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?

Chinatown at sunset, New York

What the author has said

‘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.

Hanya Yanagihara with her novel A Little Life , 2015

The online rise of A Little Life

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.

Antoni Porowski, host on Netflix’s Queer Eye

Further reading

The New Yorker - Hanya Yanagihara’s audience of one

I-D - Unpacking the cult following of A Little Life

Evening Standard - ‘I don’t follow the contemporary literary scene’ - Hanya Yanagihara on cultural appropriation and why she never reads her own reviews

Pan Macmillian - How Hanya Yanagihara’s modern classic, A Little Life, took on a visual life of its own

If you enjoyed this book, why not try…

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vyoung

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

A Little Life

Read more on a little life, 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

Dua Lipa on A Little Life: ‘It challenged everything I thought I knew about love'

Read an extract from a little life by hanya yanagihara, win a copy of a little life by hanya yanagihara - and a booker prize tote bag, buy the book.

Reading list

Nine Booker Prize-nominated novels that explore toxic relationships

10 of the most heartbreaking books from the booker library, 70 classic booker prize-nominated novels, recommended by our readers, the best love stories in booker-nominated books.

Book recommendations

Ten Booker-nominated books to inspire a fresh start

First person

A Little Life: 'I forged a deep connection with vulnerable, determined Jude'

Ecstasy or agony: the story behind the 'visceral' photo on the cover of a little life.

Competition

Book extract

A Little Life: 'Reading about someone else’s pain makes you feel less alone’

Dua lipa's booker prize speech: 'i wonder if authors realise how many gifts they give us', share this page.

  • Share this page on Facebook
  • Share this page on Twitter
  • Share this page on LinkedIn
  • Share this page on Mail

A Little Life is the best novel of the year. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

by Jeff Chu

a little life book reviews

"Be quiet! Don't cry! Shhh. "

I cried my way through Hanya Yanagihara's novel A Little Life. Critics have called it "exquisite," "a masterwork," and "a tour de force" ; Garth Greenwell describes it as "the most ambitious chronicle of the social and emotional lives of gay men to have emerged for many years." The novel — Yanagihara's second, after The People in the Trees —chronicles the relationships of four college buddies over three decades: JB, an artist; Malcolm, an architect; Willem, an actor; and Jude, a lawyer. Yanagihara records their peaks — all four achieve professional success — but dwells longer in their emotional and psychological valleys.

More from First Person

9004993292_58782594d3_k.0.jpg

I read 164 books in 2015 and tracked them all in a spreadsheet. Here's what I learned.

I'd give A Little Life all of the awards. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (it lost to Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings ) and has been longlisted for the National Book Award for fiction. Yanagihara's prose is occasionally so stunning that it would stop me, pushing me back to the beginning of a paragraph for a second read. It's particularly dazzling when she visits the complicated mind and spirit of Jude, who becomes the axis on which the book's world turns. Indeed, A Little Life may be the most beautiful, profoundly moving novel I've ever read. But I would never recommend it to anyone.

Jude suffers childhood abuse, the details of which Yanagihara slowly reveals via flashback. It seems at first extensive, then almost endless. Some reviewers have questioned how realistic Yanagihara's depictions of the abuse and its aftereffects could be. But no book I've read has captured as perfectly the inner life of someone hoarding the unwanted souvenirs of early trauma — the silence, the self-loathing, the chronic and aching pain.

"For many years," Yanagihara writes, Jude "had envisioned (unimaginatively) a vault, and at the end of the day, he would gather the images and sequences and words that he didn't want to think about again and open the heavy steel door only enough to hurry them inside, closing it quickly and tightly."

When I read that passage, I thought: I know that feeling.

"Be quiet! Don't cry! Shhh."

My grandmother, whom I loved more than anyone in the world, would whisper-shout this to me in Cantonese when I was a kid. This was the only thing that she, a retired Bible teacher, ever said to me in her corrective, classroom voice. When I was 4, 5, 6, I was a crier, so she repeated this lesson over and over and over.

Who was I to argue? I was reared on stories of her suffering. As the Japanese army swept through China in the early 1940s, she, my seminary professor grandfather, and their two young kids sprinted ahead of the soldiers. She also had to care for about 20 of my grandfather's students, who accompanied them. During those refugee years, my grandmother gave birth to three more children. Two lived.

More than 10 million Chinese civilians were killed during the war. My grandparents survived, but not without cost.

Mostly I saw it in Grandma's behavioral quirks — the milk jugs of pennies banked under the bathroom sink, just in case; $20 bills at the bottom of her yarn box, just in case; the molding food in the fridge that she couldn't throw away, just in case. But I also felt it in her tense silence whenever arguments erupted in our family. And I heard it in her admonitions whenever she sensed my oncoming tears.

I learned well. So: I was quiet and didn't cry when Mac, my fifth-grade bully, repeatedly mocked my slitty eyes and my coarse hair and told others that if they spent time with me, they'd get eyes and hair like that too. I was quiet and didn't cry when an HR guy outed me to colleagues while recruiting donors for an office blood drive. "Well," he said, "obviously Jeff can't do it." I am quiet and don't cry when the brothers of one of my dearest friends joke that I eat dog, as they have every time they've seen me for more than 15 years.

I most regret being quiet and not crying the summer I turned 15. We were living in Miami then, for my dad's job, but when school let out I'd return to my native California to stay with my grandparents in Berkeley. Some afternoons, I'd spend hours nesting amid the stacks of its used bookstores. Others, I'd sneak a movie, hoping Grandma wouldn't ask where I'd been, because she'd remind me films were "of the devil." (Why couldn't I be quiet when she asked that? Why didn't I just invoke my teenager status and not answer? I don't know.)

Occasionally, when I was feeling especially rebellious, I'd bum cigarettes from strangers.

I know that memories do more than just seep out. They morph, and they turn, and sometimes they turn on you. One day I saw a guy smoking in the courtyard of a small shopping center. He worked at the photo store. We made awkward small talk while we smoked.

I needed to pee, so I asked if he could unlock the shopping center's bathroom. He did. Then he followed me in and began to touch—

Then he walked me to his store and into the back room, where he—

I remember shivering — Fuck. I'm shivering now.

And then he pushed me down on my—

The only thing I remember him saying was, "Doesn't it feel good?"

Why didn't I say no? Why did I bum that cigarette? It was only five blocks away — why didn't I just go home to pee? Why didn't I shout? Why didn't I run?

"Be quiet. Don't cry. Shhh."

I didn't tell anyone what had happened, not for 12 years. When, finally, I began to tell the tiniest bit of the story, I called it molestation —an ugly word, but not the ugliest. Is it strange to say that Jude's story gave me new vocabulary — or permission? After A Little Life, I named it honestly for the first time: rape.

The best novels point us back to something real — sometimes physical, but more often intellectual or emotional or even visceral. As I've read reviews of A Little Life, I've been puzzled by the clinical way in which some critics address the trauma Jude suffers as a child and its echoes in his adulthood. Don't they have their own memory vaults? Or are they just more secure?

Sarah Churchwell, in an exasperated, empathy-deficient review in the Guardian , questions Yanagihara's decision to write about Jude in the third, not first, person: "This is not thought: it is voiceover," Churchwell writes, "Such narration is distancing: it leaves us watching what Jude feels, rather than actively sharing in his confusion, pain, suffering." But first person or third, narration is still narration. It isn't "actively sharing" in trauma or its consequences. I wouldn't wish that on anyone.

Watching Jude, not being Jude, reflects wise editing, because Jude is a spectator too. He cannot control his memories — they control him. His vault is porous. His strategy for containing the past "wasn't effective," Yanagihara writes. No matter his efforts, "the memories seeped out."

I know that memories do more than just seep out. They morph, and they turn, and sometimes they turn on you. Absent the original perpetrator (Jude's dies, mine disappears), you assume that role. You play both parts — attacker and attacked, punisher and punished — in a twisted drama of substitutionary atonement. You seek but never find absolution for something you didn't do, for something that was done to you. Sin is sin. Someone has to pay, right?

Jude bleeds all over A Little Life — he's a cutter. It makes for difficult reading, but I bristled when Stephanie Hayes, writing in the Atlantic , describes Jude as "an alien other, haunting readers with his ordeals." Yanagihara illustrates the internal processes that inspire Jude's self-harm by creating a menagerie: His self-loathing is an uncaged "beast," his memories prowling "hyenas." Hayes dismisses this as "surreal and relentless imagery, almost as if to deflect humanizing sympathy for his struggles."

Alien? Surreal? No. Yanagihara's descriptions embodied my feelings — and reactions like Hayes's eye-rolling and her "don't be so dramatic" condescension are what I fear. Because this is my daily litany: I pierce myself with self-criticism until I reach numbness. I surgically examine my friendships to see what others could possibly want of me, and then drain them of their lifeblood: love. If my friends knew what's been done to me, and what I've done since, these relationships would never last anyway. If I shared my story, you'd walk away. If you knew the truth, you'd disappear —or worse, you'd stay to mock me.

"At night," Yanagihara writes, "he prayed to a god he didn't believe in — and hadn't for years: Help me, help me, help me " So I've sought extra locks for my vaults. Yet the memories still seep out, especially when other people are around. At parties, I escape repeatedly to the bathroom to splash water on my face. I preemptively try to run away from reincarnations of Mac, my fifth-grade bully, who returns to comment on my eyes, still slitty, or my hair, still coarse. I imagine men chewing over the best joke about what pets I may or may not eat. Summer can be the worst. I almost never wear shorts in public because the photo shop guy did that day, and when I see a particular stocky build and muscular calf—

The relationship that matters most in A Little Life isn't between Jude and Willem, or Jude and Malcolm, or Jude and JB — it's between Jude and Jude. This book is about internal warfare: Does he live alone with his festering hurt, or does he risk trusting others with his secrets? This book is about love: If perfect love casts out fear, perfect fear must block both the giving and receiving of love, and Jude's inability to love himself prevents him from feeling the embrace of the patient, kind love of those around him.

"At night," Yanagihara writes, "he prayed to a god he didn't believe in — and hadn't for years: Help me, help me, help me, he pleaded. He was losing himself; this had to stop."

I've prayed that same prayer many times, more vigorously in recent months than ever. I'm not quite Jude; I guess I do believe in God. I want to believe that my prayer is being answered. Last winter, inexplicably, I started to cry again with some regularity. And though I rarely read fiction, along came A Little Life, which I picked up though I had no idea what it was about.

At its best, storytelling is communion. Human experiences converge, and isolation withers at the intersection. I read A Little Life when I wasn't ready to talk about trauma or even to hear about it. But Jude's inability to address his wounds compelled me to begin to address mine. His struggle to find his peace emboldened me to try to find mine.

I don't know what healing might look like. But admitting to my husband that I believe I'm damaged goods — that's something. To let my closest friends see some of my deepest wounds — that's something. Acknowledging and apologizing for the ways in which I have, in my silence and fear, rejected others' kindness and dishonored their friendship — that's something. I've still never told anyone the whole story — not my husband, nor my therapist — and maybe I never will. But being able to say that I'm not a lost cause, and to believe it (mostly) — that's something too.

My grandmother has been dead 20 years, but sometimes she still whisper-shouts in my head. At last, I am ready to whisper-shout something back: "Be quiet, Grandma. Shhh. "

Jeff Chu is a contributing writer at Fast Company and the author of Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America . He lives in Brooklyn.

First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines , and pitch us at [email protected] .

Most Popular

America is not ready for what comes next, who shot trump what we know about the assassination attempt., will trump’s shooting change everything or surprisingly little, project 2025: the myths and the facts, the ugly process of turning beautiful women into dallas cowboys cheerleaders, today, explained.

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.

More in Features

The false promise of the “timeless” wedding

The false promise of the “timeless” wedding

There’s a secret wildlife wonderland hidden in the US — and it’s in danger

There’s a secret wildlife wonderland hidden in the US — and it’s in danger

House of the Dragon and the Targaryen family, explained

House of the Dragon and the Targaryen family, explained

The distinctly American fantasy of “French parenting”

The distinctly American fantasy of “French parenting”

Why AI art will always kind of suck

Why AI art will always kind of suck

A crisis on America’s roads

A crisis on America’s roads

The false promise of the “timeless” wedding

What the assassination attempt on President Reagan reveals about the Trump shooting

Who shot Trump? What we know about the assassination attempt.

Donald Trump targeted in assassination attempt

Heated rhetoric is dangerous, but honest disagreement is necessary for democracy

Heated rhetoric is dangerous, but honest disagreement is necessary for democracy

Will Trump’s shooting change everything? Or surprisingly little?

The Literature Empire

Book review: hanya yanagihara – a little life.

One of the saddest books on the market. That’s what you might have heard of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – or at least that’s what I figured from all the reviews I’ve seen online. But is it actually worth reading?

I started to read the book with great expectations, even though I was very hesitant at first. And with all the trigger warnings, who wouldn’t be?

Well, it turned out to be a rollercoaster of emotions – but let’s not spoil it too much in advance.

So, let’s figure out whether you do or don’t want to add the book to your to-read list.

  • The trigger warnings you might have heard regarding the book are there for a reason. There are themes and plot developments that are truly upsetting.
  • The main characters have amazing chemistry – I wish there were more moments where we’d see them interact.
  • While I loved the first half of the book, it then seemed like the author kept throwing the characters (especially Jude) into traumatic situations just for the sake of it. How much suffering is too much to make the book still enjoyable?

a little life book reviews

What Is A Little Life Really About?

In A Little Life , we meet a group of 4 friends who went to the college together:

  • Willem – a kind and handsome aspiring actor
  • Jude – a brilliant lawyer dealing with a troubled past
  • Malcolm – an architect who isn’t happy about his job
  • JB – a talented artist trying to break through and make his mark in the industry

The story follows them over decades. And as it always is with people, all of them change. Over time, their relationships take a darker turn but become deeper at the same time. 

Throughout the years, their friendships get tainted by addiction, pride, and drive to succeed.

But no matter what, all of them seem to gravitate to Jude.

While there is a great dynamic among the main characters, it all spirals back to Jude – his traumatic upbringing and demons of the past that keep haunting him till the end.

So, essentially, it’s a deep dive into the soul of a man who suffered too much and went through events that nobody deserves to experience.

In the Beginning, There Were Four

Willem, Jude, Malcolm, and JB have great dynamics. In fact, my most favourite scenes in the book were those where I could see them all interact with each other. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many situations like that.

And while all of them are framed as the main characters, only Willem and Jude seem to stay in the centre of the story. JB and Malcolm still have their storylines, but as the years go by, Yanagihara doesn’t focus on them in her story as much anymore. And that’s a pity, in my opinion.

True, there are also many other relationships – whether they’re romantic, friendly, or parental – that form around the individual characters. While some add genuine value to the storyline and emotions of the story, it feels like others are there only for sensation.

Even though I love Jude and Willem and their dynamic, I wish there was a bit more focus on the entire group.

Friendship, companionship: it so often defied logic, so often eluded the deserving, so often settled itself on the odd, the bad, the peculiar, the damaged. Hanya Yanagihara – A Little Life

How Much Suffering Is Too Much?

The amount of trauma and suffering is one of the main reasons why the book is so controversial.

Jude is so broken. And after what he’s been through, it’s no wonder. You can’t help but feel bad for him. Really, no one should go through what happened to him since his early childhood.

However, how much suffering is too much? When should be the right time to stop before it scales too much in the book?

Honestly, I knew that I was in for a ride when I started the book, just based on what I’ve heard from others. But it doesn’t take much to figure out what’s happened to Jude pretty early on in the book. I really didn’t want to believe it when I started to put together the puzzle.

I think that Yanagihara took it too far. There were villains that made my heart break, but then there were evil characters that just didn’t fit in, and it felt like the author kept adding in the moments of suffering just for the sake of it.

I just kept thinking: “That’s a bit overboard, right?” But at the same time, there are 7 billion people in the world. And if there’s someone going through even a fraction of what happened to Jude and others, then I’m so sorry, and I keep them in my prayers.

So… Is it realistic?

I can’t say. But it’s fiction, so the borders could be stretched way beyond reality.

The Final Verdict

If there’s any book I have a love/hate relationship with, it would be this one.

Everyone was telling me how they found the first 200 pages or so really boring and slow. But to be honest, I LOVED the first half of the book. But I really don’t bask in seeing people going through traumatic experiences, and this was too much for me.

In the second half of the book, it felt to me like the writer just flew through the rest of the story. The years went past quickly, there were unnecessary villains, and some romantic relationships made no sense whatsoever.

But I might be a strange audience for the book. Everyone I know has cried while reading the book. I didn’t. Don’t take me wrong – it is a heartbreaking story. But I completely skipped the sadness and went directly into the stage of anger. Really, I don’t think my book has ever flown across a living room before.

So… Will I read the book again?

Am I glad that I’ve read it?

Should you read it?

It depends. I don’t want you to get triggered by some of the things going on in the story. But if you’re interested in psychology and love to see how the human mind can sometimes work, then it could be worth it.

Readers Also Ask

Is a little life a hard read.

Yes, it is – both in terms of the length and complexity of the story. After all, the book has over 700 pages, and the plot spins over decades. So, there’s a lot to follow and remember as you go.

Should a 14-year-old read A Little Life ?

Definitely not. It’s a challenging read, even for adults. There’s a lot of trauma, heartbreak, and upsetting themes that could bring harm to teens in that vulnerable time of their lives.

What is the controversy with the book A Little Life ?

The main controversy with the book stems from its depiction of trauma. Many people also bring up that the amount of trauma isn’t realistic, and LGBT characters are depicted and treated poorly by the writer.

Pick Your Next Read

Are you looking to read something happier? Here are some of my articles that could improve your mood:

  • PHOTO DIARY: Chatsworth House – Do you love Pride and Prejudice? Read more about my trip to Pemberley as you might know it from the 2005 movie adaptation.
  • BOOK REVIEW: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary A. Shaffer and Annie Barrows – A story of a writer who travels to Guernsey and falls in love. Is it the right read for you? Find out in this review!
  • Book review: Good Omens – Who doesn’t love a good fantasy book? Let’s dive into the magic of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.

Share this:

Leave a comment cancel reply.

' src=

  • Already have a WordPress.com account? Log in now.
  • Subscribe Subscribed
  • Copy shortlink
  • Report this content
  • View post in Reader
  • Manage subscriptions
  • Collapse this bar

Find anything you save across the site in your account

The Subversive Brilliance of “A Little Life”

Image associated to article

At the beginning of Hanya Yanagihara’s new novel, “A Little Life,” four young men, all graduates of the same prestigious New England university, set about establishing adult lives for themselves in New York City. They are a pleasingly diverse crew, tightly bound to each other: Willem Ragnarsson, the handsome son of a Wyoming ranch hand, who works as a waiter but aspires to be an actor; Malcolm Irvine, the biracial scion of a wealthy Upper East Side family, who has landed an associate position with a European starchitect; Jean-Baptiste (JB) Marion, the child of Haitian immigrants, who works as a receptionist at a downtown art magazine in whose pages he expects, one day soon, to be featured; and Jude St. Francis, a lawyer and mathematician, whose provenance and ethnic origins are largely unknown, even by his trio of friends. Jude, we later learn, was a foundling, deposited in a bag by a dumpster and raised by monks.

For the first fifty or so pages, as the characters attend parties, find apartments, go on dates, gossip, and squabble with each other, it is easy for the reader to think he knows what he’s getting into: the latest example of the postgraduate New York ensemble novel, a genre with many distinguished forbears, Mary McCarthy’s “The Group” and Claire Messud’s “The Emperor’s Children” among them. At one point, after his acting career takes off, Willem thinks, “New York City … had simply been an extension of college, where everyone had known him and JB, and the entire infrastructure of which sometimes seemed to have been lifted out of Boston and plunked down within a few blocks’ radius in lower Manhattan and outer Brooklyn.” Yanagihara is a capable chronicler of the struggle for success among the young who flock to New York every autumn, sending up the pretensions of the art world and the restaurant where Willem works, which is predictably staffed by would-be thespians. “New York was populated by the ambitious,” JB observes. “It was often the only thing that everyone here had in common…. Ambition and atheism.”

Yet it becomes evident soon enough that the author has more on her mind than a conventional big-city bildungsroman. For one thing, there’s the huge hunk of paper in the reader’s right hand: more than seven hundred pages, suggesting grander ambitions than a tale of successful careers. There are also curious absences in the text. Yanagihara scrubs her prose of references to significant historical events. The September 11th attacks are never mentioned, nor are the names of the Mayor, the President, or any recognizable cultural figures who might peg the narrative to a particular year. The effect of this is to place the novel in an eternal present day, in which the characters’ emotional lives are foregrounded and the political and cultural Zeitgeist is rendered into vague scenery.

But the clearest sign that “A Little Life” will not be what we expect is the gradual focus of the text on Jude’s mysterious and traumatic past. As the pages turn, the ensemble recedes and Jude comes to the fore. And with Jude at its center, “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. And having upset our expectations once, Yanagihara does it again, by refusing us the consolations we have come to expect from stories that take such a dark turn.

The first real hint of what we’re in for comes on page 67, when Jude wakes Willem, his roommate, saying, “There’s been an accident, Willem; I’m sorry.” Jude is bleeding profusely from his arm, which is wrapped in a towel. He is evasive about the cause of the wound and insists that he doesn’t want to go to a hospital, asking instead that Willem take him to a mutual friend named Andy, who is a doctor. At the end of the visit, having sewn up Jude’s wound, Andy says to Willem, “You know he cuts himself, don’t you?”

The cutting becomes a leitmotif. Every fifty pages or so, we get a scene in which Jude mutilates his own flesh with a razor blade. It is described with a directness that might make some readers queasy: “He has long ago run out of blank skin on his forearms, and he now recuts over old cuts, using the edge of the razor to saw through the tough, webby scar tissue: when the new cuts heal, they do so in warty furrows, and he is disgusted and dismayed and fascinated all at once by how severely he has deformed himself.”

The cutting is both a symptom of and a control mechanism for the profound abuse Jude suffered during the years before he arrived at the university. The precise nature of that suffering is carefully doled out by Yanagihara in a series of flashbacks, each more gruesome than its predecessors. Jude was taught to cut himself by Brother Luke, the monk who abducted him from the monastery. Initially, Brother Luke appeared to be Jude’s savior, spiriting him away from an institution where he was regularly beaten and sexually assaulted. Brother Luke promises Jude that they will go and live together as father and son in a house in the woods, but the reality of their years on the road is much, much grimmer. Eventually, Jude is liberated from Brother Luke, but by then he appears to be marked for sexual violation. “You were born for this,” Brother Luke tells him. And, for a long time, Jude believes him.

The graphic depictions of abuse and physical suffering that one finds in “A Little Life” are rare in mainstream literary fiction. Novels that deal with these matters often fade out when the violence begins. The abuse in “Lolita,” for instance, is largely off camera, so to speak, or wrapped complexly in Nabokov’s lyrical prose. In Emma Donoghue’s “Room,” the child narrator is banished to the closet while his mother is raped by their captor. You are more likely to find sustained and explicit depictions of depravity in genre fiction, where authors seem freer to be less decorous. Stephen King’s “Lisey’s Story,” Steig Larsson’s “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and the torture of Theon Greyjoy in “A Game of Thrones” all came to mind when I was reading “A Little Life” (though the torture of Theon is more explicit in the HBO series than in George R. R. Martin’s books). 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.

One of the few recent novels that’s comparable to “A Little Life” in this respect is Merritt Tierce’s “Love Me Back,” a fierce book about a self-destructive Texas waitress who cuts and burns herself, abuses drugs, and submits herself to debasing sexual encounters. But that novel, at a mere two hundred pages, is a slim silver dagger, not the broadsword that Yanagihara wields. And unlike Tierce’s book, in which there is little reprieve for the reader, Yanagihara balances the chapters about Jude’s suffering with extended sections portraying his friendships and his successful career as a corporate litigator. One of the reasons the book is so long is that it draws on these lighter stretches to make the darker ones bearable. Martin Amis once asked, “Who else but Tolstoy has made happiness really swing on the page?” And the surprising answer is that Hanya Yanagihara has: counterintuitively, the most moving parts of “A Little Life” are not its most brutal but its tenderest ones, moments when Jude receives kindness and support from his friends.

What makes the book’s treatment of abuse and suffering subversive is that it does not offer any possibility of redemption and deliverance beyond these tender moments. It gives us a moral universe in which spiritual salvation of this sort does not exist. None of Jude’s tormentors are ever termed “evil” by him or anyone else. During his years of suffering, only once are we told that Jude prays “to a god he didn’t believe in” (note the lowercase “g_”_). Though he is named after the patron saint of lost causes—the name given to him by the monks who raised him—what’s most obviously lost here is the promise of spiritual absolution or even psychological healing. In this godless world, friendship is the only solace available to any of us.

Of course, atheism is not uncommon in contemporary literary novels; with notable exceptions, such as the works of Marilynne Robinson, few such books these days have any religious cast. But perhaps that is why they rarely depict extreme suffering—because it is a nearly impossible subject to engage with directly if you are not going to offer some kind of spiritual solution. “God whispers to us in our pleasures … but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” C. S. Lewis wrote, in “The Problem of Pain.” In “A Little Life,” pain is not a message from God, or a path to enlightenment, and yet Yanigihara listens to it anyway.

In addition to his law degree, Jude pursues a master’s in pure mathematics. At one point, he explains to his friends that he is drawn to math because it offers the possibility of “a wholly provable, unshakable absolute in a constructed world with very few unshakable absolutes.” For Jude, then, mathematics takes the place of religion, in a sense. Later, during one of his worst episodes of suffering, Jude turns to a concept known as the axiom of equality, which states that x always equals x .

It assumes that if you have a conceptual thing named x it must always be equivalent to itself, that it has a uniqueness about it, that it is in possession of something so irreducible that we must assume it is absolutely, unchangeably equivalent to itself for all time, that its very elementalness can never be altered. But it is impossible to prove. Not everyone liked the axiom of equality … but he had always appreciated how elusive it was, how the beauty of the equation itself would always be frustrated by the attempts to prove it. It was the kind of axiom that could drive you mad, that could consume you, that could easily become an entire life.

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.

Books & Fiction

By signing up, you agree to our User Agreement and Privacy Policy & Cookie Statement . This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The Culture Wars Inside the New York Times

The Butterworth Effect

Book Review: ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara

subscribe

I’m Convinced We Are All Pawns In Balenciaga’s Giant Social Experiment

a little life book reviews

An Oldie But A Goodie – Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ Has Had A Modern-Day Makeover

a little life book reviews

House of Sky & Breath by Sarah J. Maas

a little life book reviews

The New Dress Silhouette Is Here, And It’s Oh-So-Romantic

a little life book reviews

Why Is Fantasy Only Cool When It’s Game Of Thrones?

a little life book reviews

I had to put this book down so many times before I could finish it. Dubbed the best-written book of our generation, it is also described as one of the most heart-wrenching, devastating, disturbing, most depressing book ever read. Powerful and honest prose, A Little Life was almost torture to finish. I couldn’t put it down, but at the same time, I pushed and pulled with my conscience to take a break for my mental health. Incredibly difficult to read, I have only ever read one book with tougher content ( My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent, if you really must know – read with caution). I made myself read only one chapter a week, when normally, with prose written as addictively as this, it would take me perhaps 4 or 5 days to finish it entirely. Whether it made it worse – that I had to sit and properly take in what had happened that chapter – I don’t know.

A Little Life follows the life of a young man named Jude, and his friends, Willem, JB, and Malcolm; their meeting at university; and their lives growing older in New York. Always intertwined in some respect, this book unravels the meaning of true friendship, which shines like a lighthouse beacon throughout the book. Every time the content is hard and cruel, the friendship and love cuts through. The star character is Jude St. Francis, who is a star to everyone but himself.

Jude has endured too many tough, life-changing moments in his life, any one of them being almost too much to bear, but the hardest part to read about Jude is his inability to love himself, and his longing to get better not for himself, but for the others around him. His awareness of knowing his personal boundaries, wanting to surpass them, but just not being able to. Jude is standing in the doorway of his life, never being able to step outside onto the porch. He can’t bring himself to voice the past he grapples with, and his non-existent self-esteem that comes with it. When you’re depressed and someone asks you how you are, the answer “Fine” seems almost like a call for help, when outwardly it says the opposite. Jude is crying out for help, for connection, for love, and true kindness, without ever having the ability to do so.

One of the most overwhelming reactions when I talk about this book is, “I’ve never experienced so much love.” Love is the strongest theme in the book, with agape (unconditional love) and philia (familial love) taking centre stage. It’s the love of Jude’s friends that care for him as a doctor, as adopted parents, as someone who understands Jude, as someone who builds a home for Jude, as someone who mentors Jude, and someone who captures Jude through art – because he can never see his own beauty or worth.

It is a slow burn, and at over 700 pages, it’s an intimidating read. The story is slow and winding, jumping between character’s point of view, and moments in time. The narrative is so aware of human behaviour, that it’s like seeing ultimate clarity almost of our own consciousness. If someone saw your life through your own mind, thoughts and all, and could explain moments that you couldn’t even understand. Hanya Yanagihara puts to words thoughts that you’ve had that are so fleeting and intangible, you didn’t even know you had had them until you read a sentence that triggers your memory of a thought that wasn’t quite a thought. Yanagihara delves so deeply into the minds and thoughts of the characters that you know them more deeply than you know your own friends. She creates the characters’ personalities not by telling you how they are, but by being who they are. The reason A Little Life is so heart-wrenching is not because you have been told a story, but because you have become the characters; you have lived a full life being the characters – bad days, deepest thoughts, hopeful weeks, and hopeless years.

There are times in this book when I had to close my eyes to stop myself from reading the next words. It’s like a car crash. Everything slows down, the car is flying through the air, time stops for a second and everything is stuck in place. But then, time starts again, you keep on reading, the car hits the tarmac, you are irrevocably changed. Most storytellers have a line that they do not cross, for example, there’s not many writers that would kill the dog. Hanya Yanagihara kills the metaphorical dog. She holds nothing back. She is not afraid to rip apart the story – all you’ve ever known in this little life! But that’s life, isn’t it? Sometimes the dog does die, even if it breaks your heart – regardless of whether it breaks your heart. Perhaps that’s why A Little Life is so heart-breaking to read. Because it’s real, and it’s life, and it doesn’t stop for anyone. Willem sums up this perfectly towards the end of the novel, “…a larger sadness, one that seemed to encompass all the poor striving people, the billions he didn’t know, all living their lives, a sadness that mingled with a wonder and awe at how hard humans everywhere tried to live, even when their days were so very difficult, even when their circumstances were so wretched. Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It’s so sad, and yet we all do it.”

If this year has taught us anything, it’s the importance of our health. Jude struggles with his health throughout the book, and it leaves us with the feeling of a fist around our heart. It is that fear of the worst that can happen in sickness – when it is out of our hands, when you want to cure someone but cannot, when there is nothing you can do but watch it unfold.

I cannot express how much I loved this book. I agree with the critics and really do believe that it’s one of the best books of our generation. As an English Lit graduate, I can say that I’ve read a lot of classic, life-changing books in my time, and A Little Life takes its place up on the podium among the best of them. We are lucky to read a book like this in our lifetimes. It is rare to find not only an extraordinary not-commonly-told story, but with extraordinary writing and narrative to match. It was an ordeal reading this book, one that spilled many a tear, but nevertheless, I’m looking forward to reading it all over again (albeit with a couple of year’s grace), if only so I can experience Jude’s journey, to look at all that hardship, loss, and love, and watch in awe.

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

a little life book reviews

Normal People: A Hot Take

a little life book reviews

A Selection Of Chonky Books That If You Can Hack It, You Should 100% Read

a little life book reviews

Your Summer Reading List For 2022

a little life book reviews

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Discover more from the butterworth effect.

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Type your email…

Continue reading

The 1 00 Best Books of the 21st Century

Stack of 20 books

As voted on by 503 novelists, nonfiction writers, poets, critics and other book lovers — with a little help from the staff of The New York Times Book Review.

Many of us find joy in looking back and taking stock of our reading lives, which is why we here at The New York Times Book Review decided to mark the first 25 years of this century with an ambitious project: to take a first swing at determining the most important, influential books of the era. In collaboration with the Upshot, we sent a survey to hundreds of literary luminaries , asking them to name the 10 best books published since Jan. 1, 2000.

Stephen King took part. So did Bonnie Garmus, Claudia Rankine, James Patterson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Elin Hilderbrand, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Roxane Gay, Marlon James, Sarah MacLean, Min Jin Lee, Jonathan Lethem and Jenna Bush Hager, to name just a few . And you can also take part! Vote here and let us know what your top 10 books of the century are.

We hope you’ll discover a book you’ve always meant to read, or encounter a beloved favorite you’d like to pick up again. Above all, we hope you’re as inspired and dazzled as we are by the breadth of subjects, voices, opinions, experiences and imagination represented here.

The 100 Best Books of the 21st Century

  • See how your favorite authors voted
  • Submit your own Top 10
  • Let us help you find a new book to read from the list
  • Sign up to receive the Books newsletter

Book cover for Tree of Smoke

Tree of Smoke

Denis Johnson 2007

Like the project of the title — an intelligence report that the newly minted C.I.A. operative William “Skip” Sands comes to find both quixotic and useless — the Vietnam-era warfare of Johnson’s rueful, soulful novel lives in shadows, diversions and half-truths. There are no heroes here among the lawless colonels, assassinated priests and faith-stricken NGO nurses; only villainy and vast indifference.

Liked it? Try “ Missionaries ,” by Phil Klay or “ Hystopia ,” by David Means.

Interested? Read our review . Then reserve it at your local library or buy it from Amazon , Apple , Barnes & Noble or Bookshop .

Book cover for How to Be Both

How to Be Both

Ali Smith 2014

This elegant double helix of a novel entwines the stories of a fictional modern-day British girl and a real-life 15th-century Italian painter. A more conventional book might have explored the ways the past and present mirror each other, but Smith is after something much more radical. “How to Be Both” is a passionate, dialectical critique of the binaries that define and confine us. Not only male and female, but also real and imaginary, poetry and prose, living and dead. The way to be “both” is to recognize the extent to which everything already is. — A.O. Scott, critic at large for The Times

Liked it? Try “ Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi ,” by Geoff Dyer or “ The Argonauts ,” by Maggie Nelson.

Book cover for Bel Canto

Ann Patchett 2001

A famed opera singer performs for a Japanese executive’s birthday at a luxe private home in South America; it’s that kind of party. But when a group of young guerrillas swoops in and takes everyone in the house hostage, Patchett’s exquisitely calibrated novel — inspired by a real incident — becomes a piano wire of tension, vibrating on high.

Book cover for Bel Canto

My wife and I share books we love with our kids, and after I raved about “Bel Canto” — the voice, the setting, the way romance and suspense are so perfectly braided — I gave copies to my kids, and they all loved it, too. My son was in high school then, and he became a kind of lit-pusher, pressing his beloved copy into friends’ hands. We used to call him the Keeper of the Bel Canto. — Jess Walter, author of “Beautiful Ruins”

Liked it? Try “ Nocturnes ,” by Kazuo Ishiguro or “ The Piano Tuner ,” by Daniel Mason.

Book cover for Men We Reaped

Men We Reaped

Jesmyn Ward 2013

Sandwiched between her two National Book Award-winning novels, Ward’s memoir carries more than fiction’s force in its aching elegy for five young Black men (a brother, a cousin, three friends) whose untimely exits from her life came violently and without warning. Their deaths — from suicide and homicide, addiction and accident — place the hidden contours of race, justice and cruel circumstance in stark relief.

Liked it? Try “ Breathe: A Letter to My Sons ,” by Imani Perry or “ Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir ,” by Natasha Trethewey.

a little life book reviews

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

Saidiya Hartman 2019

A beautiful, meticulously researched exploration of the lives of Black girls whom early-20th-century laws designated as “wayward” for such crimes as having serial lovers, or an excess of desire, or a style of comportment that was outside white norms. Hartman grapples with “the power and authority of the archive and the limits it sets on what can be known” about poor Black women, but from the few traces she uncovers in the historical record, she manages to sketch moving portraits, restoring joy and freedom and movement to what, in other hands, might have been mere statistics. — Laila Lalami, author of “The Other Americans”

Liked it? Try “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being,” by Christina Sharpe or “ All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake ,” by Tiya Miles.

Book cover for Bring Up the Bodies

Bring Up the Bodies

Hilary Mantel 2012

The title comes from an old English legal phrase for summoning men who have been accused of treason to trial; in the court’s eyes, effectively, they are already dead. But Mantel’s tour-de-force portrait of Thomas Cromwell, the second installment in her vaunted “Wolf Hall” series, thrums with thrilling, obstinate life: a lowborn statesman on the rise; a king in love (and out of love, and in love again); a mad roundelay of power plays, poisoned loyalties and fateful realignments. It’s only empires, after all.

stack of books facing backward

Liked it? Try “ This Is Happiness ,” by Niall Williams or “ The Western Wind ,” by Samantha Harvey.

Interested? Read our review . Then reserve it at your local library or buy it from Amazon , Apple or Barnes & Noble .

Book cover for On Beauty

Zadie Smith 2005

Consider it a bold reinvention of “Howards End,” or take Smith’s sprawling third novel as its own golden thing: a tale of two professors — one proudly liberal, the other staunchly right-wing — whose respective families’ rivalries and friendships unspool over nearly 450 provocative, subplot-mad pages.

Book cover for On Beauty

“You don’t have favorites among your children, but you do have allies.”

Let’s admit it: Family is often a kind of war, even if telepathically conducted. — Alexandra Jacobs, book critic for The Times

Liked it? Try “ Crossroads ,” by Jonathan Franzen.

Book cover for Station Eleven

Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel 2014

Increasingly, and for obvious reasons, end-times novels are not hard to find. But few have conjured the strange luck of surviving an apocalypse — civilization preserved via the ad hoc Shakespeare of a traveling theater troupe; entire human ecosystems contained in an abandoned airport — with as much spooky melancholic beauty as Mandel does in her beguiling fourth novel.

Liked it? Try “ Severance ,” by Ling Ma or “ The Passage ,” by Justin Cronin.

Book cover for The Days of Abandonment

The Days of Abandonment

Elena Ferrante; translated by Ann Goldstein 2005

There is something scandalous about this picture of a sensible, adult woman almost deranged by the breakup of her marriage, to the point of neglecting her children. The psychodrama is naked — sometimes hard to read, at other moments approaching farce. Just as Ferrante drew an indelible portrait of female friendship in her quartet of Neapolitan novels, here, she brings her all-seeing eye to female solitude.

Book cover for The Days of Abandonment

“The circle of an empty day is brutal, and at night it tightens around your neck like a noose.”

It so simply encapsulates how solitude can, with the inexorable passage of time, calcify into loneliness and then despair. — Alexandra Jacobs

Liked it? Try “ Eileen ,” by Ottessa Moshfegh or “ Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation ,” by Rachel Cusk.

Book cover for The Human Stain

The Human Stain

Philip Roth 2000

Set during the Clinton impeachment imbroglio, this is partly a furious indictment of what would later be called cancel culture, partly an inquiry into the paradoxes of class, sex and race in America. A college professor named Coleman Silk is persecuted for making supposedly racist remarks in class. Nathan Zuckerman, his neighbor (and Roth’s trusty alter ego), learns that Silk, a fellow son of Newark, is a Black man who has spent most of his adult life passing for white. Of all the Zuckerman novels, this one may be the most incendiary, and the most unsettling. — A.O. Scott

Liked it? Try “ Vladimir ,” by Julia May Jonas or “ Blue Angel ,” by Francine Prose.

Book cover for The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen 2015

Penned as a book-length confession from a nameless North Vietnamese spy as Saigon falls and new duties in America beckon, Nguyen’s richly faceted novel seems to swallow multiple genres whole, like a satisfied python: political thriller and personal history, cracked metafiction and tar-black comedy.

Liked it? Try “ Man of My Time ,” by Dalia Sofer or “ Tomás Nevinson ,” by Javier Marías; translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

Book cover for The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between

Hisham Matar 2016

Though its Pulitzer Prize was bestowed in the category of biography, Matar’s account of searching for the father he lost to a 1990 kidnapping in Cairo functions equally as absorbing detective story, personal elegy and acute portrait of doomed geopolitics — all merged, somehow, with the discipline and cinematic verve of a novel.

Liked it? Try “ A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy ,” by Nathan Thrall, “ House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East ,” by Anthony Shadid or “ My Father’s Fortune ,” by Michael Frayn.

a little life book reviews

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

Brevity, thy name is Lydia Davis. If her work has become a byword for short (nay, microdose) fiction, this collection proves why it is also hard to shake; a conflagration of odd little umami bombs — sometimes several pages, sometimes no more than a sentence — whose casual, almost careless wordsmithery defies their deadpan resonance.

Liked it? Try “ Ninety-Nine Stories of God ,” by Joy Williams or “ Tell Me: Thirty Stories ,” by Mary Robison.

Book cover for Detransition, Baby

Detransition, Baby

Torrey Peters 2021

Love is lost, found and reconfigured in Peters’s penetrating, darkly humorous debut novel. But when the novel’s messy triangular romance — between two trans characters and a cis-gendered woman — becomes an unlikely story about parenthood, the plot deepens, and so does its emotional resonance: a poignant and gratifyingly cleareyed portrait of found family.

Book cover for Detransition, Baby

Peters’s sly wit and observational genius, her ability to balance so many intimate realities, cultural forces and zeitgeisty happenings made my head spin. It got me hot, cracked me up, punched my heart with grief and understanding. I’m in awe of her abilities, and will re-read this book periodically just to remember how it’s done. — Michelle Tea, author of “Against Memoir”

Liked it? Try “ I Heard Her Call My Name: A Memoir of Transition ,” by Lucy Sante or “ Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta ,” by James Hannaham.

Book cover for Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

Frederick Douglass

David W. Blight 2018

It is not hard to throw a rock and hit a Great Man biography; Blight’s earns its stripes by smartly and judiciously excavating the flesh-and-bone man beneath the myth. Though Douglass famously wrote three autobiographies of his own, there turned out to be much between the lines that is illuminated here with rigor, flair and refreshing candor.

Liked it? Try “ The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family ,” by Kerri K. Greenidge or “Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865,” by James Oakes.

Book cover for Pastoralia

George Saunders 2000

An ersatz caveman languishes at a theme park; a dead maiden aunt comes back to screaming, scatological life; a bachelor barber born with no toes dreams of true love, or at least of getting his toe-nubs licked. The stories in Saunders’s second collection are profane, unsettling and patently absurd. They’re also freighted with bittersweet humanity, and rendered in language so strange and wonderful, it sings.

Liked it? Try “ Swamplandia! ,” by Karen Russell or “ Friday Black ,” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.

Book cover for The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

The Emperor of All Maladies

Siddhartha Mukherjee 2010

The subtitle, “A Biography of Cancer,” provides some helpful context for what lies between the covers of Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, though it hardly conveys the extraordinary ambition and empathy of his telling, as the trained oncologist weaves together disparate strands of large-scale history, biology and devastating personal anecdote.

Liked it? Try “ Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End ,” by Atul Gawande, “ Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery ,” by Henry Marsh or “ I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life ,” by Ed Yong.

Book cover for When We Cease to Understand the World

When We Cease to Understand the World

Benjamín Labatut; translated by Adrian Nathan West 2021

You don’t have to know anything about quantum theory to start reading this book, a deeply researched, exquisitely imagined group portrait of tormented geniuses. By the end, you’ll know enough to be terrified. Labatut is interested in how the pursuit of scientific certainty can lead to, or arise from, states of extreme psychological and spiritual upheaval. His characters — Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger, among others — discover a universe that defies rational comprehension. After them, “scientific method and its object could no longer be prised apart.” That may sound abstract, but in Labatut’s hands the story of quantum physics is violent, suspenseful and finally heartbreaking. — A.O. Scott

Liked it? Try “ The Rigor of Angels: Borges, Heisenberg, Kant, and the Ultimate Nature of Reality ,” by William Egginton, “ The Noise of Time ,” by Julian Barnes or “The End of Days,” by Jenny Erpenbeck; translated by Susan Bernofsky.

Book cover for Hurricane Season

Hurricane Season

Fernanda Melchor; translated by Sophie Hughes 2020

Her sentences are sloping hills; her paragraphs, whole mountains. It’s no wonder that Melchor was dubbed a sort of south-of-the-border Faulkner for her baroque and often brutally harrowing tale of poverty, paranoia and murder (also: witches, or at least the idea of them) in a fictional Mexican village. When a young girl impregnated by her pedophile stepfather unwittingly lands there, her arrival is the spark that lights a tinderbox.

Liked it? Try “ Liliana’s Invincible Summer: A Sister’s Search for Justice ,” by Cristina Rivera Garza or “ Fever Dream ,” by Samanta Schweblin; translated by Megan McDowell.

Book cover for Pulphead

John Jeremiah Sullivan 2011

When this book of essays came out, it bookended a fading genre: collected pieces written on deadline by “pulpheads,” or magazine writers. Whether it’s Sullivan’s visit to a Christian rock festival, his profile of Axl Rose or a tribute to an early American botanist, he brings to his subjects not just depth, but an open-hearted curiosity. Indeed, if this book feels as if it’s from a different time, perhaps that’s because of its generous receptivity to other ways of being, which offers both reader and subject a kind of grace.

Liked it? Try “ Sunshine State ,” by Sarah Gerard, “ Consider the Lobster ,” by David Foster Wallace or “ Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It ,” by Geoff Dyer.

Book cover for The Story of the Lost Child

The Story of the Lost Child

Elena Ferrante; translated by Ann Goldstein 2015

All things, even modern literature’s most fraught female friendship, must come to an end. As the now middle-aged Elena and Lila continue the dance of envy and devotion forged in their scrappy Neapolitan youth, the conclusion of Ferrante’s four-book saga defies the laws of diminishing returns, illuminating the twined psychologies of its central pair — intractable, indelible, inseparable — in one last blast of X-ray prose.

Liked it? Try “The Years That Followed,” by Catherine Dunne or “From the Land of the Moon,” by Milena Agus; translated by Ann Goldstein.

a little life book reviews

A Manual for Cleaning Women

Lucia Berlin 2015

Berlin began writing in the 1960s, and collections of her careworn, haunted, messily alluring yet casually droll short stories were published in the 1980s and ’90s. But it wasn’t until 2015, when the best were collected into a volume called “A Manual for Cleaning Women,” that her prodigious talent was recognized. Berlin writes about harried and divorced single women, many of them in working-class jobs, with uncanny grace. She is the real deal. — Dwight Garner, book critic for The Times

a little life book reviews

“I hate to see anything lovely by myself.”

It’s so true, to me at least, and I have heard no other writer express it. — Dwight Garner

Liked it? Try “ The Flamethrowers ,” by Rachel Kushner or “ The Complete Stories ,” by Clarice Lispector; translated by Katrina Dodson.

Book cover for Septology

Jon Fosse; translated by Damion Searls 2022

You may not be champing at the bit to read a seven-part, nearly 700-page novel written in a single stream-of-consciousness sentence with few paragraph breaks and two central characters with the same name. But this Norwegian masterpiece, by the winner of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature, is the kind of soul-cleansing work that seems to silence the cacophony of the modern world — a pair of noise-canceling headphones in book form. The narrator, a painter named Asle, drives out to visit his doppelgänger, Asle, an ailing alcoholic. Then the narrator takes a boat ride to have Christmas dinner with some friends. That, more or less, is the plot. But throughout, Fosse’s searching reflections on God, art and death are at once haunting and deeply comforting.

Book cover for Septology

I had not read Fosse before he won the Nobel Prize, and I wanted to catch up. Luckily for me, the critic Merve Emre (who has championed his work) is my colleague at Wesleyan, so I asked her where to start. I was hoping for a shortcut, but she sternly told me that there was nothing to do but to read the seven-volume “Septology” translated by Damion Searls. Luckily for me, I had 30 hours of plane travel in the next week or so, and I had a Kindle.

Reading “Septology” in the cocoon of a plane was one of the great aesthetic experiences of my life. The hypnotic effects of the book were amplified by my confinement, and the paucity of distractions helped me settle into its exquisite rhythms. The repetitive patterns of Fosse’s prose made its emotional waves, when they came, so much more powerful. — Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University

Liked it? Try “ Armand V ,” by Dag Solstad; translated by Steven T. Murray.

Book cover for An American Marriage

An American Marriage

Tayari Jones 2018

Life changes in an instant for Celestial and Roy, the young Black newlyweds at the beating, uncomfortably realistic heart of Jones’s fourth novel. On a mostly ordinary night, during a hotel stay near his Louisiana hometown, Roy is accused of rape. He is then swiftly and wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison. The couple’s complicated future unfolds, often in letters, across two worlds. The stain of racism covers both places.

Liked it? Try “ Hello Beautiful ,” by Ann Napolitano or “ Stay with Me ,” by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀.

Book cover for Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow

Gabrielle Zevin 2022

The title is Shakespeare; the terrain, more or less, is video games. Neither of those bare facts telegraphs the emotional and narrative breadth of Zevin’s breakout novel, her fifth for adults. As the childhood friendship between two future game-makers blooms into a rich creative collaboration and, later, alienation, the book becomes a dazzling disquisition on art, ambition and the endurance of platonic love.

Liked it? Try “ Normal People ,” by Sally Rooney or “ Super Sad True Love Story ,” by Gary Shteyngart.

Book cover for Exit West

Mohsin Hamid 2017

The modern world and all its issues can feel heavy — too heavy for the fancies of fiction. Hamid’s quietly luminous novel, about a pair of lovers in a war-ravaged Middle Eastern country who find that certain doors can open portals, literally, to other lands, works in a kind of minor-key magical realism that bears its weight beautifully.

Liked it? Try “ The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida ,” by Shehan Karunatilaka or “ A Burning ,” by Megha Majumdar.

Book cover for Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge

Elizabeth Strout 2008

When this novel-in-stories won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009, it was a victory for crotchety, unapologetic women everywhere, especially ones who weren’t, as Olive herself might have put it, spring chickens. The patron saint of plain-spokenness — and the titular character of Strout’s 13 tales — is a long-married Mainer with regrets, hopes and a lobster boat’s worth of quiet empathy. Her small-town travails instantly became stand-ins for something much bigger, even universal.

Liked it? Try “ Tom Lake ,” by Ann Patchett or “ Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage ,” by Alice Munro.

Book cover for The Passage of Power

The Passage of Power

Robert Caro 2012

The fourth volume of Caro’s epic chronicle of Lyndon Johnson’s life and times is a political biography elevated to the level of great literature. His L.B.J. is a figure of Shakespearean magnitude, whose sudden ascension from the abject humiliations of the vice presidency to the summit of political power is a turn of fortune worthy of a Greek myth. Caro makes you feel the shock of J.F.K.’s assassination, and brings you inside Johnson’s head on the blood-drenched day when his lifelong dream finally comes true. It’s an astonishing and unforgettable book. — Tom Perrotta, author of “The Leftovers”

Liked it? Try “ G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century ,” by Beverly Gage, “ King: A Life ,” by Jonathan Eig or “ American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer ,” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.

Book cover for Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets

Secondhand Time

Svetlana Alexievich; translated by Bela Shayevich 2016

Of all the 20th century’s grand failed experiments, few came to more inglorious ends than the aspiring empire known, for a scant seven decades, as the U.S.S.R. The death of the dream of Communism reverberates through the Nobel-winning Alexievich’s oral history, and her unflinching portrait of the people who survived the Soviet state (or didn’t) — ex-prisoners, Communist Party officials, ordinary citizens of all stripes — makes for an excoriating, eye-opening read.

Liked it? Try “ Gulag ,” by Anne Applebaum or “ Is Journalism Worth Dying For? Final Dispatches ,” by Anna Politkovskaya; translated by Arch Tait.

Book cover for The Copenhagen Trilogy: Childhood, Youth, Dependency

The Copenhagen Trilogy

Tove Ditlevsen; translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman 2021

Ditlevsen’s memoirs were first published in Denmark in the 1960s and ’70s, but most English-language readers didn’t encounter them until they appeared in a single translated volume more than five decades later. The books detail Ditlevsen’s hardscrabble childhood, her flourishing early career as a poet and her catastrophic addictions, which left her wedded to a psychotic doctor and hopelessly dependent on opioids by her 30s. But her writing, however dire her circumstances, projects a breathtaking clarity and candidness, and it nails what is so inexplicable about human nature.

Liked it? Try “ The End of Eddy ,” by Édouard Louis; translated by Michael Lucey.

Book cover for All Aunt Hagar’s Children

All Aunt Hagar’s Children

Edward P. Jones 2006

Jones’s follow-up to his Pulitzer-anointed historical novel, “The Known World,” forsakes a single narrative for 14 interconnected stories, disparate in both direction and tone. His tales of 20th-century Black life in and around Washington, D.C., are haunted by cumulative loss and touched, at times, by dark magical realism — one character meets the Devil himself in a Safeway parking lot — but girded too by loveliness, and something like hope.

Book cover for All Aunt Hagar’s Children

“It was, I later learned about myself, as if my heart, on the path that was my life, had come to a puddle in the road and had faltered, hesitated, trying to decide whether to walk over the puddle or around it, or even to go back.”

The metaphor is right at the edge of corniness, but it's rendered with such specificity that it catches you off guard, and the temporal complexity — the way the perspective moves forward, backward and sideways in time — captures an essential truth about memory and regret. — A.O. Scott

Liked it? Try “ The Office of Historical Corrections ,” by Danielle Evans or “ Perish ,” by LaToya Watkins.

Book cover for The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

The New Jim Crow

Michelle Alexander 2010

One year into Barack Obama’s first presidential term, Alexander, a civil rights attorney and former Supreme Court clerk, peeled back the hopey-changey scrim of early-aughts America to reveal the systematic legal prejudice that still endures in a country whose biggest lie might be “with liberty and justice for all.” In doing so, her book managed to do what the most urgent nonfiction aims for but rarely achieves: change hearts, minds and even public policy.

Liked it? Try “ Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America ,” by James Forman Jr., “ America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s ,” by Elizabeth Hinton or “ Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent ,” by Isabel Wilkerson.

Interested? Reserve it at your local library or buy it from Amazon , Apple , Barnes & Noble or Bookshop .

Book cover for The Friend

Sigrid Nunez 2018

After suffering the loss of an old friend and adopting his Great Dane, the book’s heroine muses on death, friendship, and the gifts and burdens of a literary life. Out of these fragments a philosophy of grief springs like a rabbit out of a hat; Nunez is a magician. — Ada Calhoun, author of “Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me”

Book cover for The Friend

“The Friend” is a perfect novel about the size of grief and love, and like the dog at the book’s center, the book takes up more space than you expect. It’s my favorite kind of masterpiece — one you can put into anyone’s hand. — Emma Straub, author of “This Time Tomorrow”

Liked it? Try “ Autumn ,” by Ali Smith or “ Stay True: A Memoir ,” by Hua Hsu.

Book cover for Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity

Far From the Tree

Andrew Solomon 2012

In this extraordinary book — a combination of masterly reporting and vivid storytelling — Solomon examines the experience of parents raising exceptional children. I have often returned to it over the years, reading it for its depth of understanding and its illumination of the particulars that make up the fabric of family. — Meg Wolitzer, author of “The Interestings”

Liked it? Try “ Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us ,” by Rachel Aviv or “ NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity ,” by Steven Silberman.

Book cover for We the Animals

We the Animals

Justin Torres 2011

The hummingbird weight of this novella — it barely tops 130 pages — belies the cherry-bomb impact of its prose. Tracing the coming-of-age of three mixed-race brothers in a derelict upstate New York town, Torres writes in the incantatory royal we of a sort of sibling wolfpack, each boy buffeted by their parents’ obscure grown-up traumas and their own enduring (if not quite unshakable) bonds.

Liked it? Try “ Shuggie Bain ,” by Douglas Stuart, “ Fire Shut Up in My Bones ,” by Charles Blow or “ On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous ,” by Ocean Vuong.

Book cover for The Plot Against America

The Plot Against America

Philip Roth 2004

What if, in the 1940 presidential election, Charles Lindbergh — aviation hero, America-firster and Nazi sympathizer — had defeated Franklin Roosevelt? Specifically, what would have happened to Philip Roth, the younger son of a middle-class Jewish family in Newark, N.J.? From those counterfactual questions, the adult Roth spun a tour de force of memory and history. Ever since the 2016 election his imaginary American past has pulled closer and closer to present-day reality. — A.O. Scott

Liked it? Try “ Biography of X ,” by Catherine Lacey or “ The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family ,” by Joshua Cohen.

Book cover for The Great Believers

The Great Believers

Rebecca Makkai 2018

It’s mid-1980s Chicago, and young men — beautiful, recalcitrant boys, full of promise and pure life force — are dying, felled by a strange virus. Makkai’s recounting of a circle of friends who die one by one, interspersed with a circa-2015 Parisian subplot, is indubitably an AIDS story, but one that skirts po-faced solemnity and cliché at nearly every turn: a bighearted, deeply generous book whose resonance echoes across decades of loss and liberation.

Liked it? Try “ The Interestings ,” by Meg Wolitzer, “ A Little Life ,” by Hanya Yanagihara or “ The Emperor’s Children ,” by Claire Messud.

Book cover for Veronica

Mary Gaitskill 2005

Set primarily in a 1980s New York crackling with brittle glamour and real menace, “Veronica” is, on the face of it, the story of two very different women — the fragile former model Alison and the older, harder Veronica, fueled by fury and frustrated intelligence. It's a fearless, lacerating book, scornful of pieties and with innate respect for the reader’s intelligence and adult judgment.

Liked it? Try “ The Quick and the Dead ,” by Joy Williams, “ Look at Me ,” by Jennifer Egan or “ Lightning Field ,” by Dana Spiotta.

Book cover for 10:04

Ben Lerner 2014

How closely does Ben Lerner, the very clever author of “10:04,” overlap with its unnamed narrator, himself a poet-novelist who bears a remarkable resemblance to the man pictured on its biography page? Definitive answers are scant in this metaphysical turducken of a novel, which is nominally about the attempts of a Brooklyn author, burdened with a hefty publishing advance, to finish his second book. But the delights of Lerner’s shimmering self-reflexive prose, lightly dusted with photographs and illustrations, are endless.

Book cover for 10:04

“Shaving is a way to start the workday by ritually not cutting your throat when you’ve the chance.”

“10:04” is filled with sentences that cut this close to the bone. Comedy blends with intimations of the darkest aspects of our natures, and of everyday life. Who can shave anymore without recalling this “Sweeney Todd”-like observation? — Dwight Garner

Liked it? Try “ The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. ,” by Adelle Waldman, “ Open City ,” by Teju Cole or “ How Should a Person Be? ,” by Sheila Heti.

Book cover for Demon Copperhead

Demon Copperhead

Barbara Kingsolver 2022

In transplanting “David Copperfield” from Victorian England to modern-day Appalachia, Kingsolver gives the old Dickensian magic her own spin. She reminds us that a novel can be wildly entertaining — funny, profane, sentimental, suspenseful — and still have a social conscience. And also that the injustices Dickens railed against are still very much with us: old poison in new bottles. — A.O. Scott

Liked it? Try “ James ,” by Percival Everett or “ The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store ,” by James McBride.

Book cover for Heavy: An American Memoir

Kiese Laymon 2018

What is the psychic weight of secrets and lies? In his unvarnished memoir, Laymon explores the cumulative mass of a past that has brought him to this point: his Blackness; his fraught relationship to food; his family, riven by loss and addiction and, in his mother’s case, a kind of pathological perfectionism. What emerges is a work of raw emotional power and fierce poetry.

Liked it? Try “ Men We Reaped ,” by Jesmyn Ward or “ Another Word for Love ,” by Carvell Wallace.

Book cover for Middlesex

Jeffrey Eugenides 2002

Years before pronouns became the stuff of dinner-table debates and email signatures, “Middlesex” offered the singular gift of an intersex hero — “sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome!” — whose otherwise fairly ordinary Midwestern life becomes a radiant lens on recent history, from the burning of Smyrna to the plush suburbia of midcentury Grosse Pointe, Mich. When the teenage Calliope, born to doting Greek American parents, learns that she is not in fact a budding young lesbian but biologically male, it’s less science than assiduously buried family secrets that tell the improbable, remarkable tale.

Liked it? Try “ The Nix ,” by Nathan Hill, “ The Heart’s Invisible Furies ,” by John Boyne or “ The Signature of All Things ,” by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Book cover for Stay True

Hua Hsu 2022

An unlikely college friendship — Ken loves preppy polo shirts and Pearl Jam, Hua prefers Xeroxed zines and Pavement — blossoms in 1990s Berkeley, then is abruptly fissured by Ken’s murder in a random carjacking. Around those bare facts, Hsu’s understated memoir builds a glimmering fortress of memory in which youth and identity live alongside terrible, senseless loss.

Liked it? Try “ Truth & Beauty: A Friendship ,” by Ann Patchett, “ The Best Minds: A Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions ,” by Jonathan Rosen or “ Just Kids ,” by Patti Smith.

Book cover for Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

Nickel and Dimed

Barbara Ehrenreich 2001

Waitress, hotel maid, cleaning woman, retail clerk: Ehrenreich didn’t just report on these low-wage jobs; she actually worked them, trying to construct a life around merciless managers and wildly unpredictable schedules, while also getting paid a pittance for it. Through it all, Ehrenreich combined a profound sense of moral outrage with self-deprecating candor and bone-dry wit. — Jennifer Szalai, nonfiction book critic for The Times

Liked it? Try “ Poverty, by America ,” by Matthew Desmond or “ The Working Poor: Invisible in America ,” by David K. Shipler.

Book cover for The Flamethrowers

The Flamethrowers

Rachel Kushner 2013

Motorcycle racing across the arid salt flats of Utah; art-star posturing in the downtown demimonde of 1970s New York; anarchist punk collectives and dappled villas in Italy: It’s all connected (if hardly contained) in Kushner’s brash, elastic chronicle of a would-be artist nicknamed Reno whose lust for experience often outstrips both sense and sentiment. The book’s ambitions rise to meet her, a churning bedazzlement of a novel whose unruly engine thrums and roars.

Liked it? Try “ City on Fire ,” by Garth Risk Hallberg or “ The Girls ,” by Emma Cline.

Book cover for The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11

The Looming Tower

Lawrence Wright 2006

What happened in New York City one incongruously sunny morning in September was never, of course, the product of some spontaneous plan. Wright’s meticulous history operates as a sort of panopticon on the events leading up to that fateful day, spanning more than five decades and a geopolitical guest list that includes everyone from the counterterrorism chief of the F.B.I. to the anonymous foot soldiers of Al Qaeda.

Liked it? Try “ Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 ,” by Steve Coll or “ MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman ,” by Ben Hubbard.

Book cover for Tenth of December

Tenth of December

George Saunders 2013

For all of their linguistic invention and anarchic glee, Saunders’s stories are held together by a strict understanding of the form and its requirements. Take plot: In “Tenth of December,” his fourth and best collection, readers will encounter an abduction, a rape, a chemically induced suicide, the suppressed rage of a milquetoast or two, a veteran’s post-­traumatic impulse to burn down his mother’s house — all of it buffeted by gusts of such merriment and tender regard and daffy good cheer that you realize only in retrospect how dark these morality tales really are.

Book cover for Tenth of December

Nobody writes like George Saunders. He has cultivated a genuinely original voice, one that is hilarious and profound, tender and monstrous, otherworldly and deeply familiar, much like the American psyche itself. With each of these stories, you feel in the hands of a master — because you are. — Matthew Desmond, author of “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City”

Liked it? Try “Delicate Edible Birds: And Other Stories,” by Lauren Groff, “ Oblivion: Stories ,” by David Foster Wallace or “ The Nimrod Flipout: Stories ,” by Etgar Keret, translated by Miriam Shlesinger and Sondra Silverston.

Book cover for Runaway

Alice Munro 2004

On one level, the title of Munro’s 11th short-story collection refers to a pet goat that goes missing from its owners’ property; but — this being Munro — the deeper reference is to an unhappy wife in the same story, who dreams of leaving her husband someday. Munro’s stories are like that, with shadow meanings and resonant echoes, as if she has struck a chime and set the reverberations down in writing.

Liked it? Try “ Homesickness ,” by Colin Barrett or “ The Collected Stories of Lorrie Moore .”

Book cover for Train Dreams

Train Dreams

Denis Johnson 2011

Call it a backwoods tragedy, stripped to the bone, or a spare requiem for the American West: Johnson’s lean but potent novella carves its narrative from the forests and dust-bowl valleys of Spokane in the early decades of the 20th century, following a day laborer named Robert Grainier as he processes the sudden loss of his young family and bears witness to the real-time formation of a raw, insatiable nation.

Liked it? Try “ That Old Ace in the Hole ,” by Annie Proulx or “ Night Boat to Tangier ,” by Kevin Barry.

Book cover for Life After Life

Life After Life

Kate Atkinson 2013

Can we get life “right”? Are there choices that would lead, finally, to justice or happiness or save us from pain? Atkinson wrestles with these questions in her brilliant “Life After Life” — a historical novel, a speculative novel, a tale of time travel, a moving portrait of life before, during and in the aftermath of war. It gobbles up genres and blends them together until they become a single, seamless work of art. I love this goddamn book. — Victor LaValle, author of “Lone Women”

Book cover for Life After Life

“‘Fox Corner — that’s what we should call the house. No one else has a house with that name and shouldn’t that be the point?’

‘Really?’ Hugh said doubtfully. ‘It’s a little whimsical, isn’t it? It sounds like a children’s story. The House at Fox Corner. ’

‘A little whimsy never hurt anyone.’

‘Strictly speaking, though,’ Hugh said, ‘can a house be a corner? Isn’t it at one?’

So this is marriage, Sylvie thought.”

“Her brilliant ear. Her humor. Her openness. Her peculiar gifts. Some of her books are perfect. The rest are merely superb.” — Amy Bloom, writer

Liked it? Try “Light Perpetual,” by Francis Spufford or “ Neverhome ,” by Laird Hunt.

Book cover for Trust

Hernan Diaz 2022

How many ways can you tell the same story? Which one is true? These questions and their ethical implications hover over Diaz’s second novel. It starts out as a tale of wealth and power in 1920s New York — something Theodore Dreiser or Edith Wharton might have taken up — and leaps forward in time, across the boroughs and down the social ladder, breathing new vitality into the weary tropes of historical fiction. — A.O. Scott

Book cover for Trust

Be prepared for some serious mind games! Set in New York City in the 1920s and ’30s, the story of a Manhattan financier and his high-society wife is told through four “books” — a novel, a manuscript, a memoir and a journal. But which version should you trust? Is there even one true reality?

As we sift our way through these competing narratives, Diaz serves us clues and red herrings in equal measure. We know we are being gamed, but we’re not sure exactly which character is gaming us. While each reader will draw their own conclusion when they reach the end of this complex and thrilling book, what is never disputed is the ease with which money and power can bend reality itself. — Dua Lipa, singer and songwriter behind the Service95 Book Club

Liked it? Try “ This Strange Eventful History ,” by Claire Messud or “ The Luminaries ,” by Eleanor Catton.

Book cover for The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian

Han Kang; translated by Deborah Smith 2016

One ordinary day, a young housewife in contemporary Seoul wakes up from a disturbing dream and simply decides to … stop eating meat. As her small rebellion spirals, Han’s lean, feverish novel becomes a surreal meditation on not just what the body needs, but what a soul demands.

Book cover for The Vegetarian

“I want to swallow you, have you melt into me and flow through my veins.”

“The Vegetarian” is a short novel with a mysterious, otherworldly air. It feels haunted, oppressive … It’s a story about hungers and starvation and desire, and how these become intertwined.” — Silvia Moreno-Garcia, author of “Mexican Gothic”

Liked it? Try “ My Year of Rest and Relaxation ,” by Ottessa Moshfegh or “ Convenience Store Woman ,” by Sayaka Murata; translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori.

Book cover for Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

Marjane Satrapi 2003

Drawn in stark black-and-white panels, Satrapi’s graphic novel is a moving account of her early life in Iran during the Islamic Revolution and her formative years abroad in Europe. The first of its two parts details the impacts of war and theocracy on both her family and her community: torture, death on the battlefield, constant raids, supply shortages and a growing black market. Part 2 chronicles her rebellious, traumatic years as a teenager in Vienna, as well as her return to a depressingly restrictive Tehran. Devastating — but also formally inventive, inspiring and often funny — “Persepolis” is a model of visual storytelling and personal narrative.

Liked it? Try “ https://www.nytimes.com/2024/01/19/books/review/martyr-kaveh-akbar.html '>Martyr! ,” by Kaveh Akbar or “ Disoriental ,” by Négar Djavadi; translated by Tina Kover.

Interested? Read our review . Then reserve it at your local library or buy it from Amazon , Barnes & Noble or Bookshop .

Book cover for A Mercy

Toni Morrison 2008

Mercies are few and far between in Morrison’s ninth novel, set on the remote colonial land of a 17th-century farmer amid his various slaves and indentured servants (even the acquisition of a wife, imported from England, is strictly transactional). Disease runs rampant and children die needlessly; inequity is everywhere. And yet! The Morrison magic, towering and magisterial, endures.

Liked it? Try “ Year of Wonders ,” by Geraldine Brooks or “ The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois ,” by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers.

Book cover for The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt 2013

For a time, it seemed as if Tartt’s vaunted 1992 debut, “The Secret History,” might be her only legacy, a once-in-a-career comet zinging across the literary sky. Then, more than a decade after the coolish reception to her 2002 follow-up, “The Little Friend,” came “The Goldfinch” — a coming-of-age novel as narratively rich and riveting as the little bird in the Dutch painting it takes its title from is small and humble. That 13-year-old Theo Decker survives the museum bombing that kills his mother is a minor miracle; the tiny, priceless souvenir he inadvertently grabs from the rubble becomes both a talisman and an albatross in this heady, haunted symphony of a novel.

Liked it? Try “ Freedom ,” by Jonathan Franzen or “ Demon Copperhead ,” by Barbara Kingsolver.

Book cover for The Argonauts

The Argonauts

Maggie Nelson 2015

Call it a memoir if you must, but this is a book about the necessity — and also the thrill, the terror, the risk and reward — of defying categories. Nelson is a poet and critic, well versed in pop culture and cultural theory. The text she interprets here is her own body. An account of her pregnancy, her relationship with the artist Harry Dodge and the early stages of motherhood, “The Argonauts” explores queer identity, gender politics and the meaning of family. What makes Nelson such a valuable writer is her willingness to follow the sometimes contradictory rhythms of her own thinking in prose that is sharp, supple and disarmingly heartfelt. — A.O. Scott

Liked it? Try “My 1980s and Other Essays,” by Wayne Koestenbaum, “ No One Is Talking About This ,” by Patricia Lockwood or “ On Immunity ,” by Eula Biss.

Book cover for The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season

N.K. Jemisin 2015

“The Fifth Season” weaves its story in polyphonic voice, utilizing a clever story structure to move deftly through generational time. Jemisin delivers this bit of high craft in a fresh, unstuffy voice — something rare in high fantasy, which can take its Tolkien roots too seriously. From its heartbreaking opening (a mother’s murdered child) to its shattering conclusion, Jemisin shows the power of what good fantasy fiction can do. “The Fifth Season” explores loss, grief and personhood on an intimate level. But it also takes on themes of discrimination, human breeding and ecological collapse with an unflinching eye and a particular nuance. Jemisin weaves a world both horrifyingly familiar and unsettlingly alien. — Rebecca Roanhorse, author of “Mirrored Heavens”

Liked it? Try “ American War ,” by Omar El Akkad or “ The Year of the Flood ,” by Margaret Atwood.

Book cover for Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945

Tony Judt 2005

By the time this book was published in 2005, there had already been innumerable volumes covering Europe’s history since the end of World War II. Yet none of them were quite like Judt’s: commanding and capacious, yet also attentive to those stubborn details that are so resistant to abstract theories and seductive myths. The writing, like the thinking, is clear, direct and vivid. And even as Judt was ruthless when reflecting on Europe’s past, he maintained a sense of contingency throughout, never succumbing to the comfortable certainty of despair. — Jennifer Szalai

Liked it? Try “ We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland ,” by Fintan O’Toole, “ Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin ,” by Timothy D. Snyder or “ To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 ,” by Adam Hochschild.

a little life book reviews

A Brief History of Seven Killings

Marlon James 2014

“Brief”? For a work spanning nearly 700 pages, that word is, at best, a winky misdirection. To skip even a paragraph, though, would be to forgo the vertiginous pleasures of James’s semi-historical novel, in which the attempted assassination of an unnamed reggae superstar who strongly resembles Bob Marley collides with C.I.A. conspiracy, international drug cartels and the vibrant, violent Technicolor of post-independence Jamaica.

Liked it? Try “ Telex From Cuba ,” by Rachel Kushner or “ Brief Encounters With Che Guevara ,” by Ben Fountain.

Book cover for Small Things Like These

Small Things Like These

Claire Keegan 2021

Not a word is wasted in Keegan’s small, burnished gem of a novel, a sort of Dickensian miniature centered on the son of an unwed mother who has grown up to become a respectable coal and timber merchant with a family of his own in 1985 Ireland. Moralistically, though, it might as well be the Middle Ages as he reckons with the ongoing sins of the Catholic Church and the everyday tragedies wrought by repression, fear and rank hypocrisy.

Book cover for Small Things Like These

This is the book I would like to have written because its sentences portray a life — in all its silences, subtleties and defenses — that I would hope to live if its circumstances were mine. It’s never idle, I guess, to be asked what we would give up for another. — Claudia Rankine, author of “Citizen”

Liked it? Try “ The Rachel Incident ,” by Caroline O’Donoghue or “ Mothers and Sons ,” by Colm Tóibín.

Book cover for H Is for Hawk

H Is for Hawk

Helen Macdonald 2015

I read “H Is for Hawk” when I was writing my own memoir, and it awakened me to the power of the genre. It is a book supposedly about training a hawk named Mabel but really about wonder and loss, discovery and death. We discover a thing, then we lose it. The discovering and the losing are two halves of the same whole. Macdonald knows this and she shows us, weaving the loss of her father through the partial taming (and taming is always partial) of this hawk. — Tara Westover, author of “Educated”

Book cover for H Is for Hawk

“There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realize that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer.”

Chosen by Tara Westover.

Liked it? Try “ The Friend ,” by Sigrid Nunez or “Braiding Sweetgrass,” by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

Book cover for A Visit From the Goon Squad

A Visit From the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan 2010

In the good old pre-digital days, artists used to cram 15 or 20 two-and-a-half-minute songs onto a single vinyl LP. Egan accomplished a similar feat of compression in this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, a compact, chronologically splintered rock opera with (as they say nowadays) no skips. The 13 linked stories jump from past to present to future while reshuffling a handful of vivid characters. The themes are mighty but the mood is funny, wistful and intimate, as startling and familiar as your favorite pop album. — A.O. Scott

Liked it? Try “ Girl, Woman, Other ,” by Bernardine Evaristo, “ Doxology ,” by Nell Zink or “ Telegraph Avenue ,” by Michael Chabon.

Book cover for The Savage Detectives

The Savage Detectives

Roberto Bolaño; translated by Natasha Wimmer 2007

“The Savage Detectives” is brash, hilarious, beautiful, moving. It’s also over 600 pages long, which is why I know that my memory of reading it in a single sitting is definitely not true. Still, the fact that it feels that way is telling. I was not the same writer I’d been before reading it, not the same person. Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, the wayward poets whose youth is chronicled in “Detectives,” became personal heroes, and everything I’ve written since has been shaped by Bolaño’s masterpiece. — Daniel Alarcón, author of “At Night We Walk in Circles”

Liked it? Try “ The Old Drift ,” by Namwali Serpell or “The Literary Conference,” by César Aira; translated by Katherine Silver.

Book cover for The Years

Annie Ernaux; translated by Alison L. Strayer 2018

Spanning decades, this is an outlier in Ernaux’s oeuvre; unlike her other books, with their tight close-ups on moments in her life, here such intimacies are embedded in the larger sweep of social history. She moves between the chorus of conventional wisdom and the specifics of her own experiences, showing how even an artist with such a singular vision could recognize herself as a creature of her cohort and her culture. Most moving to me is how she begins and ends by listing images she can still recall — a merry-go-round in the park; graffiti in a restroom — that have been inscribed into her memory, yet are ultimately ephemeral. — Jennifer Szalai

Liked it? Try “ Leaving the Atocha Station ,” by Ben Lerner, “ All Fours ,” by Miranda July or “Swimming in Paris: A Life in Three Stories,” by Colombe Schneck; translated by Lauren Elkin and Natasha Lehrer.

Book cover for Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates 2015

Framed, like James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” as both instruction and warning to a young relative on “how one should live within a Black body,” Coates’s book-length letter to his 15-year-old son lands like forked lightning. In pages suffused with both fury and tenderness, his memoir-manifesto delineates a world in which the political remains mortally, maddeningly inseparable from the personal.

Liked it? Try “ American Sonnets For My Past and Future Assassin ,” by Terrance Hayes, “ Don’t Call Us Dead ,” by Danez Smith or “ Black Folk Could Fly ,” by Randall Kenan.

Book cover for Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

Alison Bechdel 2006

“A queer business.” That’s how Bechdel describes her closeted father’s death after he steps in the path of a Sunbeam Bread truck. The phrase also applies to her family’s funeral home concern; their own Victorian, Addams-like dwelling; and this marvelous graphic memoir of growing up gay and O.C.D.-afflicted (which generated a remarkable Broadway musical). You forget, returning to “Fun Home,” that the only color used is a dreamy gray-blue; that’s how vivid and particular the story is. Even the corpses crackle with life. — Alexandra Jacobs

Book cover for Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

I read “Fun Home” with creative writing students in a course I teach at Dartmouth College called “Investigative Memoir.” The first time I taught it, a student wrote in their anonymous course evaluation, “I should not have been exposed to this” — the censorious voice tends to be passive. The last time I taught it, a student said that if they’d found this in their high school library — in a state in which such books are now all but illegal in high school libraries — it would have changed their life. I’m long past my schooling, but “Fun Home” still changes my life every time I return. — Jeff Sharlet, author of “The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War”

Liked it? Try “ Blankets ,” by Craig Thompson, “ My Dirty Dumb Eyes ,” by Lisa Hanawalt or “ Small Fry ,” by Lisa Brennan-Jobs.

Book cover for Citizen

Claudia Rankine 2014

“I, too, am America,” Langston Hughes wrote, and with “Citizen” Rankine stakes the same claim, as ambivalently and as defiantly as Hughes did. This collection — which appeared two years after Trayvon Martin’s death, and pointedly displays a hoodie on its cover like the one Martin wore when he was killed — lays out a damning indictment of American racism through a mix of free verse, essayistic prose poems and visual art; a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in both poetry and criticism (the first book ever nominated in two categories), it took home the prize in poetry in a deserving recognition of Rankine’s subtle, supple literary gifts.

Liked it? Try “ Voyage of the Sable Venus: And Other Poems ,” by Robin Coste Lewis, “How to be Drawn,” by Terrance Hayes or “ Ordinary Notes ,” by Christina Sharpe.

Book cover for Salvage the Bones

Salvage the Bones

Jesmyn Ward 2011

As Hurricane Katrina bears down on the already battered bayou town of Bois Sauvage, Miss., a motherless 15-year-old girl named Esch, newly pregnant with a baby of her own, stands in the eye of numerous storms she can’t control: her father’s drinking, her brothers’ restlessness, an older boy’s easy dismissal of her love. There’s a biblical force to Ward’s prose, so swirling and heady it feels like a summoning.

Liked it? Try “ Southern Cross the Dog ,” by Bill Cheng or “ The Yellow House: A Memoir ,” by Sarah Broom.

Book cover for The Line of Beauty

The Line of Beauty

Alan Hollinghurst 2004

Oh, to be the live-in houseguest of a wealthy friend! And to find, as Hollinghurst’s young middle-class hero does in early-1980s London, that a whole intoxicating world of heedless privilege and sexual awakening awaits. As the timeline implies, though, the specter of AIDS looms not far behind, perched like a gargoyle amid glittering evocations of cocaine and Henry James. Lust, money, literature, power: Rarely has a novel made it all seem so gorgeous, and so annihilating.

Liked it? Try “ Necessary Errors ,” by Caleb Crain.

Book cover for White Teeth

White Teeth

Zadie Smith 2000

“Full stories are as rare as honesty,” one character confides in “White Teeth,” though Smith’s debut novel, in all its chaotic, prismatic glory, does its level best to try. As her bravura book unfurls, its central narrative of a friendship between a white Londoner and a Bengali Muslim seems to divide and regenerate like starfish limbs; and so, in one stroke, a literary supernova was born.

Liked it? Try “ Lionel Asbo: State of England ,” by Martin Amis or “ Americanah ,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Book cover for Sing, Unburied, Sing

Sing, Unburied, Sing

Jesmyn Ward 2017

Road trips aren’t supposed to be like this: an addled addict mother dragging her 13-year-old son and his toddler sister across Mississippi to retrieve their father from prison, and feeding her worst habits along the way. Grief and generational trauma haunt the novel, as do actual ghosts, the unrestful spirits of men badly done by. But Ward’s unflinching prose is not a punishment; it loops and soars in bruising, beautiful arias.

Book cover for Sing, Unburied, Sing

“Home is about the earth. Whether the earth open up to you. Whether it pull you so close the space between you and it melt and it beats like your heart. Same Time.”

“This passage from ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’ means so much to me. Richie says it to the protagonist, Jojo. He’s a specter, a child ghost, a deeply wounded wanderer, and yet also so wise.” — Imani Perry, author of “Breathe” and “South to America”

Liked it? Try “ The Turner House ,” by Angela Flournoy or “ Lincoln in the Bardo ,” by George Saunders.

Book cover for The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai

Helen DeWitt 2000

Sibylla, an American expat in Britain, is a brilliant scholar: omnivore, polyglot, interdisciplinary theorist — all of it. Her young son, Ludo, is a hothouse prodigy, mastering the “Odyssey” and Japanese grammar, fixated on the films of Akira Kurosawa. Two questions arise: 1) Who is the real genius? 2) Who is Ludo’s father? Ludo’s search for the answer to No. 2 propels the plot of this funny, cruel, compassionate, typographically bananas novel. I won’t spoil anything, except to say that the answer to No. 1 is Helen DeWitt. — A.O. Scott

Liked it? Try “ The Instructions ,” by Adam Levin.

Book cover for Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell 2004

Mitchell’s almost comically ambitious novel is indeed a kind of cumulus: a wild and woolly condensation of ideas, styles and far-flung milieus whose only true commonality is the reincarnated soul at its center. The book’s six nesting narratives — from 1850s New Zealand through 1930s Belgium, groovy California, recent-ish England, dystopian Korea and Hawaii — also often feel like a postmodern puzzle-box that whirls and clicks as its great world(s) spin, throwing off sparks of pulp, philosophy and fervid humanism.

Liked it? Try “ Same Bed Different Dreams ,” by Ed Park or “ Specimen Days ,” by Michael Cunningham.

Book cover for Americanah

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 2013

This is a love story — but what a love story! Crisscrossing continents, families and recent decades, “Americanah” centers on a Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, who discovers what it means to be Black by immigrating to the United States, and acquires boutique celebrity blogging about it. (In the sequel, she’d have a Substack.) Ifemelu’s entanglements with various men undergird a rich and rough tapestry of life in Barack Obama’s America and beyond. And Adichie’s sustained examination of absurd social rituals — like the painful relaxation of professionally “unacceptable” hair, for example — is revolutionary. — Alexandra Jacobs

Liked it? Try “ We Need New Names ,” by NoViolet Bulawayo, “ Netherland ,” by Joseph O’Neill or “ Behold the Dreamers ,” by Imbolo Mbue.

Book cover for Atonement

Ian McEwan 2002

Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done, or so the saying goes. But what a naïve, peevish 13-year-old named Briony Tallis sets in motion when she sees her older sister flirting with the son of a servant in hopelessly stratified pre-war England surpasses disastrous; it’s catastrophic. It’s also a testament to the piercing elegance of McEwan’s prose that “Atonement” makes us care so much.

Liked it? Try “ The Sense of an Ending ,” by Julian Barnes, “ Brooklyn ,” by Colm Toíbín or “ Life Class ,” by Pat Barker.

Book cover for Random Family

Random Family

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc 2003

More than 20 years after it was published, “Random Family” still remains unmatched in depth and power and grace. A profound, achingly beautiful work of narrative nonfiction, it is the standard-bearer of embedded reportage. LeBlanc gave her all to this book, writing about people experiencing deep hardship in their full, lush humanity. — Matthew Desmond, author of “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City”

Book cover for Random Family

I hate “Random Family.” It robbed us nonfiction writers of all our excuses: Well, it’s easier for fiction writers to achieve that level of interiority. Until “Random Family” entered the chat. It’s easier to create emotion on screen. Until “Random Family” entered the chat. It’s impossible to capture and understand a community if you’re an outsider. Until “Random Family” entered the chat.

Based on a decade of painstaking reporting in a social micro-world, it is a book of total immersion, profound empathy, rigorous storytelling, assiduous factualness, page-turning revelation and literary rizz. I hate “Random Family” because it took away all the excuses. I adore it because it raised the sky. — Anand Giridharadas, author of “The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy”

Liked it? Try “ Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City ,” by Andrea Elliott or “ When Crack Was King: A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era ,” by Donovan X. Ramsey.

Book cover for The Overstory

The Overstory

Richard Powers 2018

We may never see a poem as lovely as a tree, but a novel about trees — they are both the stealth protagonists and the beating, fine-grained heart of this strange, marvelous book — becomes its own kind of poetry, biology lesson and impassioned environmental polemic in Powers’s hands. To know that our botanical friends are capable of communication and sacrifice, sex and memory, is mind-altering. It is also, you might say, credit overdue: Without wood pulp, after all, what would the books we love be made of?

Liked it? Try “ Greenwood ,” by Michael Christie or “ Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures ,” by Merlin Sheldrake.

Book cover for Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

Alice Munro 2001

Munro’s stories apply pointillistic detail and scrupulous psychological insight to render their characters’ lives in full, at lengths that test the boundaries of the term “short fiction.” (Only one story in this book is below 30 pages, and the longest is over 50.) The collection touches on many of Munro’s lifelong themes — family secrets, sudden reversals of fortune, sexual tensions and the unreliability of memory — culminating in a standout story about a man confronting his senile wife’s attachment to a fellow resident at her nursing home.

Liked it? Try “ So Late in the Day: Stories of Women and Men ,” by Claire Keegan or “ Nora Webster ,” by Colm Tóibín.

Book cover for Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Katherine Boo 2012

If the smash movie “Slumdog Millionaire” gave the world a feel-good story of transcending caste in India via pluck and sheer improbable luck, Boo’s nonfiction exploration of several interconnected lives on the squalid outskirts of Mumbai is its sobering, necessary corrective. The casual violence and perfidy she finds there is staggering; the poverty and disease, beyond bleak. In place of triumph-of-the-human-spirit bromides, though, what the book delivers is its own kind of cinema, harsh and true.

Liked it? Try “ Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea ,” by Barbara Demick or “ Waiting to Be Arrested at Night: A Uyghur Poet's Memoir of China's Genocide ,” by Tahir Hamut Izgil; translated by Joshua L. Freeman.

Book cover for Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Matthew Desmond 2016

Like Barbara Ehrenreich or Michelle Alexander, Desmond has a knack for crystallizing the ills of a patently unequal America — here it’s the housing crisis, as told through eight Milwaukee families — in clear, imperative terms. If reading his nightmarish exposé of a system in which race and poverty are shamelessly weaponized and eviction costs less than accountability feels like outrage fuel, it’s prescriptive, too; to look away would be its own kind of crime.

Liked it? Try “ Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America ,” by Barbara Ehrenreich or “ Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive ,” by Stephanie Land.

Book cover for Erasure

Percival Everett 2001

More than 20 years before it was made into an Oscar-winning movie, Everett’s deft literary satire imagined a world in which a cerebral novelist and professor named Thelonious “Monk” Ellison finds mainstream success only when he deigns to produce the most broad and ghettoized portrayal of Black pain. If only the ensuing decades had made the whole concept feel laughably obsolete; alas, all the 2023 screen adaptation merited was a title change: “American Fiction.”

Liked it? Try “ Yellowface ,” by R.F. Kuang or “ The Sellout ,” by Paul Beatty.

Book cover for Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

Say Nothing

Patrick Radden Keefe 2019

“Say Nothing” is an amazing accomplishment — a definitive, impeccably researched history of the Troubles, a grim, gripping thriller, an illuminating portrait of extraordinary people who did unspeakable things, driven by what they saw as the justness of their cause. Those of us who lived in the U.K. in the last three decades of the 20th century know the names and the events — we were all affected, in some way or another, by the bombs, the bomb threats, the assassinations and attempted assassinations. What we didn’t know was what it felt like to be on the inside of a particularly bleak period of history. This book is, I think, unquestionably one of the greatest literary achievements of the 21st century. — Nick Hornby, author of “High Fidelity”

Liked it? Try “ A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan's Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them ,” by Timothy Egan or “ We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops, and Corruption ,” by Justin Fenton.

Book cover for Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders 2017

A father mourns his young son, dead of typhoid; a president mourns his country riven by civil war. In Saunders’s indelible portrait, set in a graveyard populated by garrulous spirits, these images collide and coalesce, transforming Lincoln’s private grief — his 11-year-old boy, Willie, died in the White House in 1862 — into a nation’s, a polyphony of voices and stories. The only novel to date by a writer revered for his satirical short stories, this book marks less a change of course than a foregrounding of what has distinguished his work all along — a generosity of spirit, an ear acutely tuned to human suffering.

Liked it? Try “ Sing, Unburied, Sing ,” by Jesmyn Ward, “ Grief Is the Thing With Feathers ,” by Max Porter or “ Hamnet ,” by Maggie O’Farrell.

Book cover for The Sellout

The Sellout

Paul Beatty 2015

Part of this wild satire on matters racial, post-racial, maybe-racial and Definitely Not Racial in American life concerns a group known as the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals. One of them has produced an expurgated edition of an American classic titled “The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit.” Beatty’s method is the exact opposite: In his hands, everything sacred is profaned, from the Supreme Court to the Little Rascals. “The Sellout” is explosively funny and not a little bit dangerous: an incendiary device disguised as a whoopee cushion, or maybe vice versa. — A.O. Scott

Book cover for The Sellout

Some voices are so sharp they slice right through reality to reveal everything we’ve been hiding or ignoring or didn’t know was there. This novel cut into me — as a writer and reader and American. It’s fearless and funny and unlike anything else I’ve read. — Charles Yu, author of “Interior Chinatown”

Liked it? Try “ Harry Sylvester Bird ,” by Chinelo Okparanta or “ We Cast a Shadow ,” by Maurice Carlos Ruffin.

a little life book reviews

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Michael Chabon 2000

Set during the first heyday of the American comic book industry, from the late 1930s to the early 1950s, Chabon’s exuberant epic centers on the Brooklyn-raised Sammy Clay and his Czech immigrant cousin, Joe Kavalier, who together pour their hopes and fears into a successful comic series even as life delivers them some nearly unbearable tragedies. Besotted with language and brimming with pop culture, political relevance and bravura storytelling, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2001.

a little life book reviews

“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” combines eloquent prose, captivating characters, a deeply researched setting and an adventure that previously only belonged to the pulps. High art and low art and who the heck cares? Chabon opened the doors not just for comic book nerds, but for every kind of nerd, including this gay one. Chabon’s book made me the writer I am, and I’m still dazzled by it: the century's first masterpiece. — Andrew Sean Greer, author of “Less”

Liked it? Try “ Carter Beats the Devil ,” by Glen David Gold or “ The Fortress of Solitude ,” by Jonathan Lethem.

Book cover for Pachinko

Min Jin Lee 2017

“History has failed us, but no matter.” So begins Lee’s novel, the rich and roiling chronicle of a Korean family passing through four generations of war, colonization and personal strife. There are slick mobsters and disabled fishermen, forbidden loves and secret losses. And of course, pachinko, the pinball-ish game whose popularity often supplies a financial lifeline for the book’s characters — gamblers at life like all of us, if hardly guaranteed a win.

Liked it? Try “ Homegoing ,” by Yaa Gyasi, “ The Covenant of Water ,” by Abraham Verghese or “ Kantika ,” by Elizabeth Graver.

Book cover for Outline

Rachel Cusk 2015

This novel is the first and best in Cusk’s philosophical, unsettling and semi-autobiographical Outline trilogy, which also includes the novels “Transit” and “Kudos.” In this one an English writer flies to Athens to teach at a workshop. Along the way, and once there, she falls into intense and resonant conversations about art, intimacy, life and love. Cusk deals, brilliantly, in uncomfortable truths. — Dwight Garner

Liked it? Try “ Checkout 19 ,” by Claire-Louise Bennett or “ Topics of Conversation ,” by Miranda Popkey.

Book cover for The Road

Cormac McCarthy 2006

There is nothing green or growing in McCarthy’s masterpiece of dystopian fiction, the story of an unnamed man and his young son migrating over a newly post-apocalyptic earth where the only remaining life forms are desperate humans who have mostly descended into marauding cannibalism. Yet McCarthy renders his deathscape in curious, riveting detail punctuated by flashes of a lost world from the man’s memory that become colorful myths for his son. In the end, “The Road” is a paean to parental love: A father nurtures and protects his child with ingenuity and tenderness, a triumph that feels redemptive even in a world without hope. — Jennifer Egan, author of “A Visit From the Goon Squad”

Liked it? Try “ On Such a Full Sea ,” by Chang-rae Lee or “ The Buried Giant ,” by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Book cover for The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion 2005

Having for decades cast a famously cool and implacable eye on everything from the Manson family to El Salvador, Didion suddenly found herself in a hellscape much closer to home: the abrupt death of her partner in life and art, John Gregory Dunne, even as their only child lay unconscious in a nearby hospital room. (That daughter, Quintana Roo, would be gone soon too, though her passing does not fall within these pages.) Dismantled by shock and grief, the patron saint of ruthless clarity did the only thing she could do: She wrote her way through it.

Liked it? Try “ When Breath Becomes Air ,” by Paul Kalanithi, “ Crying in H Mart ,” by Michelle Zauner or “ Notes on Grief ,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

a little life book reviews

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Junot Díaz 2007

Díaz’s first novel landed like a meteorite in 2007, dazzling critics and prize juries with its mix of Dominican history, coming-of-age tale, comic-book tropes, Tolkien geekery and Spanglish slang. The central plotline follows the nerdy, overweight Oscar de León through childhood, college and a stint in the Dominican Republic, where he falls disastrously in love. Sharply rendered set pieces abound, but the real draw is the author’s voice: brainy yet inviting, mordantly funny, sui generis.

Liked it? Try “ Deacon King Kong ,” by James McBride or “ The Russian Debutante’s Handbook ,” by Gary Shteyngart.

Book cover for Gilead

Marilynne Robinson 2004

The first installment in what is so far a tetralogy — followed by “Home,” “Lila” and “Jack” — “Gilead” takes its title from the fictional town in Iowa where the Boughton and Ames families reside. And also from the Book of Jeremiah, which names a place where healing may or may not be found: “Is there no balm in Gilead?” For John Ames, who narrates this novel, the answer seems to be yes. An elderly Congregationalist minister who has recently become a husband and father, he finds fulfillment in both vocation and family. Robinson allows him, and us, the full measure of his hard-earned joy, but she also has an acute sense of the reality of sin. If this book is a celebration of the quiet decency of small-town life (and mainline Protestantism) in the 1950s, it is equally an unsparing critique of how the moral fervor and religious vision of the abolitionist movement curdled, a century later, into complacency. — A.O. Scott

Book cover for Gilead

“Then he put his hat back on and stalked off into the trees again and left us standing there in that glistening river, amazed at ourselves and shining like the apostles. I mention this because it seems to me transformations just that abrupt do occur in this life, and they occur unsought and unawaited, and they beggar your hopes and your deserving.”

From a dog-eared, battered, underlined copy of Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead,” I offer the following quote which undoes me every time I read it — transformation and its possibility is so much a part of what I read for. — Kate DiCamillo, novelist

Liked it? Try “Tinkers,” by Paul Harding or “ Zorrie ,” by Laird Hunt.

Book cover for Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro 2005

Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are boarders at an elite English school called Hailsham. Supervised by a group of “guardians,” the friends share music and rumors while navigating the shifting loyalties and heartbreaks of growing up. It’s all achingly familiar — at times, even funny. But things begin to feel first off, then sinister and, ultimately, tragic. As in so much of the best dystopian fiction, the power of “Never Let Me Go” to move and disturb arises from the persistence of human warmth in a chilly universe — and in its ability to make us see ourselves through its uncanny mirror. Is Ishiguro commenting on biotechnology, reproductive science, the cognitive dissonance necessary for life under late-stage capitalism? He’d never be so didactic as to tell you. What lies at the heart of this beautiful book is not social satire, but deep compassion.

Liked it? Try “ Station Eleven ,” by Emily St. John Mandel, “ Oryx and Crake ,” by Margaret Atwood or “ Scattered All Over the Earth ,” by Yoko Tawada; translated by Margaret Mitsutani.

Book cover for Austerlitz

W.G. Sebald; translated by Anthea Bell 2001

Sebald scarcely lived long enough to see the publication of his final novel; within weeks of its release, he died from a congenital heart condition at 57. But what a swan song it is: the discursive, dreamlike recollections of Jacques Austerlitz, a man who was once a small refugee of the kindertransport in wartime Prague, raised by strangers in Wales. Like the namesake Paris train station of its protagonist, the book is a marvel of elegant construction, haunted by memory and motion.

Liked it? Try “ Transit ,” by Rachel Cusk or “ Flights ,” by Olga Tokarczuk; translated by Jennifer Croft.

Book cover for The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead 2016

“The Underground Railroad” is a profound revelation of the intricate aspects of slavery and nebulous shapes of freedom featuring an indomitable female protagonist: Cora from Georgia. The novel seamlessly combines history, horror and fantasy with philosophical speculation and cultural criticism to tell a compulsively readable, terror-laden narrative of a girl with a fierce inner spark who follows the mysterious path of her mother, Mabel, the only person ever known to have escaped from the Randall plantations.

I could hardly make it through this plaintively brutal novel. Neither could I put it down. “The Underground Railroad” bleeds truth in a way that few treatments of slavery can, fiction or nonfiction. Whitehead’s portrayals of human motivation, interaction and emotional range astonish in their complexity. Here brutality is bone deep and vulnerability is ocean wide, yet bravery and hope shine through in Cora’s insistence on escape. I rooted for Cora in a way that I never had for a character, my heart breaking with each violation of her spirit. Just as Cora inherits her mother’s symbolic victory garden, we readers of Whitehead’s imaginary world can inherit Cora’s courage. — Tiya Miles, author of “All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake”

Book cover for The Underground Railroad

“Mabel had packed for her adventure. A machete. Flint and tinder. She stole a cabin mate’s shoes, which were in better shape. For weeks, her empty garden testified to her miracle. Before she lit out she dug up every yam from their plot, a cumbersome load and ill-advised for a journey that required a fleet foot. The lumps and burrows in the dirt were a reminder to all who walked by. Then one morning they were all smoothed over. Cora got on her knees and planted anew. It was her inheritance.”

Chosen by Tiya Miles.

Liked it? Try “ The Prophets ,” by Robert Jones Jr., “ Washington Black ,” by Esi Edugyan or “ The American Daughters ,” by Maurice Carlos Ruffin.

Book cover for 2666

Roberto Bolaño; translated by Natasha Wimmer 2008

Bolaño’s feverish, vertiginous novel opens with an epigraph from Baudelaire — “An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom” — and then proceeds, over the course of some 900 pages, to call into being an entire world governed in equal parts by boredom and the deepest horror. The book (published posthumously) is divided into five loosely conjoined sections, following characters who are drawn for varying reasons to the fictional Mexican city of Santa Teresa: a group of academics obsessed with an obscure novelist, a doddering philosophy professor, a lovelorn police officer and an American reporter investigating the serial murders of women in a case with echoes of the real-life femicide that has plagued Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. In Natasha Wimmer’s spotless translation, Bolaño’s novel is profound, mysterious, teeming and giddy: Reading it, you go from feeling like a tornado watcher to feeling swept up in the vortex, and finally suspect you might be the tornado yourself.

Liked it? Try “ Compass ,” by Mathias Énard; translated by Charlotte Mandell.

Book cover for The Corrections

The Corrections

Jonathan Franzen 2001

With its satirical take on mental health, self-improvement and instant gratification, Franzen’s comic novel of family disintegration is as scathingly entertaining today as it was when it was published at the turn of the millennium. The story, about a Midwestern matron named Enid Lambert who is determined to bring her three adult children home for what might be their father’s last Christmas, touches on everything from yuppie excess to foodie culture to Eastern Europe’s unbridled economy after the fall of communism — but it is held together, always, by family ties. The novel jumps deftly from character to character, and the reader’s sympathies jump with it; in a novel as alert to human failings as this one is, it is to Franzen’s enduring credit that his genuine affection for all of the characters shines through.

Book cover for The Corrections

Sometimes we have a totemic connection to a book that deepens our appreciation. I had Jonathan Franzen's brand-new doorstop of a hardcover with me when I was trapped in an office park hotel outside Denver after 9/11. The marvelous, moving, often very funny novel kept me company when I needed company most. As Franzen himself wrote, “Fiction is a solution, the best solution, to the problem of existential solitude.” — Chris Bohjalian, author of “The Flight Attendant”

Liked it? Try “ Middlesex ,” by Jeffrey Eugenides, “ Commonwealth ,” by Ann Patchett or “ The Bee Sting ,” by Paul Murray.

Book cover for The Known World

The Known World

Edward P. Jones 2003

This novel, about a Black farmer, bootmaker and former slave named Henry Townsend, is a humane epic and a staggering feat of wily American storytelling. Set in Virginia during the antebellum era, the milieu — politics, moods, manners — is starkly and intensely realized. When Henry becomes the proprietor of a plantation, with slaves of his own, the moral sands shift under the reader’s feet. Grief piles upon grief. But there is a glowing humanity at work here as well. Moments of humor and unlikely good will bubble up organically. Jones is a confident storyteller, and in “The Known World” that confidence casts a spell. This is a large novel that moves nimbly, and stays with the reader for a long time. — Dwight Garner

Liked it? Try “ The Water Dancer ,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates or “ A Mercy ,” by Toni Morrison.

Book cover for Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel 2009

It was hard choosing the books for my list, but the first and easiest choice I made was “Wolf Hall.” (“The Mirror and the Light,” the third book in Mantel’s trilogy, was the second easiest.)

We see the past the way we see the stars, dimly, through a dull blurry scrim of atmosphere, but Mantel was like an orbital telescope: She saw history with cold, hard, absolute clarity. In “Wolf Hall” she took a starchy historical personage, Thomas Cromwell, and saw the vivid, relentless, blind-spotted, memory-haunted, grandly alive human being he must have been. Then she used him as a lens to show us the age he lived in, the vast, intricate spider web of power and money and love and need — right up until the moment the spider got him. — Lev Grossman, author of “The Bright Sword”

Liked it? Try “ The Lion House: The Coming of a King ,” by Christopher de Bellaigue or “ The Books of Jacob ,” by Olga Tokarczuk; translated by Jennifer Croft.

Book cover for The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

The Warmth of Other Suns

Isabel Wilkerson 2010

Wilkerson’s intimate, stirring, meticulously researched and myth-dispelling book, which details the Great Migration of Black Americans from South to North and West from 1915 to 1970, is the most vital and compulsively readable work of history in recent memory. This migration, she writes, “would become perhaps the biggest underreported story of the 20th century. It was vast. It was leaderless. It crept along so many thousands of currents over so long a stretch of time as to be difficult for the press truly to capture while it was under way.” Wilkerson blends the stories of individual men and women with a masterful grasp of the big picture, and a great deal of literary finesse. “The Warmth of Other Suns” reads like a novel. It bears down on the reader like a locomotive. — Dwight Garner

Liked it? Try “ The Twelve Tribes of Hattie ,” by Ayana Mathis, “ All Aunt Hagar’s Children ,” by Edward P. Jones or “ Traveling Black: A Story of Race and Resistance ,” by Mia Bay.

Book cover for My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend

Elena Ferrante; translated by Ann Goldstein 2012

The first volume of what would become Ferrante’s riveting four-book series of Neapolitan novels introduced readers to two girls growing up in a poor, violent neighborhood in Naples, Italy: the diligent, dutiful Elena and her charismatic, wilder friend Lila, who despite her fierce intelligence is seemingly constrained by her family’s meager means. From there the book (like the series as a whole) expands as propulsively as the early universe, encompassing ideas about art and politics, class and gender, philosophy and fate, all through a dedicated focus on the conflicted, competitive friendship between Elena and Lila as they grow into complicated adults. It’s impossible to say how closely the series tracks the author’s life — Ferrante writes under a pseudonym — but no matter: “My Brilliant Friend” is entrenched as one of the premier examples of so-called autofiction, a category that has dominated the literature of the 21st century. Reading this uncompromising, unforgettable novel is like riding a bike on gravel: It’s gritty and slippery and nerve-racking, all at the same time.

Liked it? Try “ The Book of Goose ,” by Yiyun Li, “ Cold Enough for Snow ,” by Jessica Au or “ Lies and Sorcery ,” by Elsa Morante; translated by Jenny McPhee.

I haven’t read any of these books yet ...

If you’ve read a book on the list, be sure to check the box under its entry, and your final count will appear here. (We’ll save your progress.)

... but I’m sure there’s something for me.

Keep track of the books you want to read by checking the box under their entries.

Methodology

In collaboration with the Upshot — the department at The Times focused on data and analytical journalism — the Book Review sent a survey to hundreds of novelists, nonfiction writers, academics, book editors, journalists, critics, publishers, poets, translators, booksellers, librarians and other literary luminaries, asking them to pick their 10 best books of the 21st century.

We let them each define “best” in their own way. For some, this simply meant “favorite.” For others, it meant books that would endure for generations.

The only rules: Any book chosen had to be published in the United States, in English, on or after Jan. 1, 2000. (Yes, translations counted!)

After casting their ballots, respondents were given the option to answer a series of prompts where they chose their preferred book between two randomly selected titles. We combined data from these prompts with the vote tallies to create the list of the top 100 books.

  • Share full article

Advertisement

a little life book reviews

  • Health, Fitness & Dieting
  • Diets & Weight Loss

a little life book reviews

Sorry, there was a problem.

Kindle app logo image

Download the free Kindle app and start reading Kindle books instantly on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required .

Read instantly on your browser with Kindle for Web.

Using your mobile phone camera - scan the code below and download the Kindle app.

QR code to download the Kindle App

Image Unavailable

Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox: How a Little-Known Vitamin Could Save Your Life

  • To view this video download Flash Player

Follow the author

Kate Rheaume-Bleue

Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox: How a Little-Known Vitamin Could Save Your Life Paperback – August 27, 2013

An essential book for anyone interested in bone health, or maintaining their overall health, "Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox" is the guide to taking the right combination of supplements--and adding Vitamin K2 to a daily regimen.

  • Print length 288 pages
  • Language English
  • Publisher Harper
  • Publication date August 27, 2013
  • Dimensions 5.5 x 0.75 x 8.25 inches
  • ISBN-10 0062320041
  • ISBN-13 978-0062320049
  • See all details

Editorial Reviews

From the back cover.

Also available as an e-book through online retailers.

About the Author

Dr Kate Rheaume-Bleue is a licensed Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine. She obtained her undergraduate degree in Biology from McMaster University, with an honors thesis that involved designing a clinical trial to evaluate natural medicine. Kate completed her professional training at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (class of '02), where she also pursued two additional years of residency training. As a member of both the Academic and Clinic faculties at CCNM for three years, Kate was a guest lecturer and teaching assistant for several courses. She was the supervising clinician at two different naturopathic public health clinics in Toronto and has held private practices in Toronto and Hamilton. Since 2006 Kate has been employed as an educator and spokesperson for Natural Factors Nutritional Products, Canada's largest manufacturer of nutritional supplements. She is also bilingual, lecturing in both official languages.

Kate's articles have been featured in Alive magazine, as well as Life Peak and Vista . Television appearances include Breakfast Television Vancouver (three times), BT Winnipeg (five times), BT Toronto (twice), BT Calgary (twice), Canada AM , Live with Christine Williams , The Fanny Keifer Show (twice), CHCH News (three times), CTV Evening News Atlantic Canada , Live at 5 and the CTV Kitchener Noon Show (twice), to name a few. She has also appeared on the Discovery Channel's Daily Planet show. Kate is a regular guest on several radio shows including CHML's Just For The Health of It , CJBK's It's Your Call , Talk 820's Lisa Live and others.

Product details

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Harper; Reprint edition (August 27, 2013)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 288 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0062320041
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0062320049
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 11.8 ounces
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 5.5 x 0.75 x 8.25 inches
  • #20 in Vitamins & Supplements (Books)
  • #50 in Physiology (Books)
  • #634 in Other Diet Books

About the author

Kate rheaume-bleue.

Kate Rhéaume (1974-) was born and raised in the West Island of Montreal, Quebec. She followed her lifelong interest in health and nutrition to McMaster University, where she completed an honors degree in Biology, with an intention to pursue a career in conventional medicine. After spending much time as a keen "pre-med" student in the University hospital Kate decided that something was missing for her from the conventional paradigm of medicine. Upon successfully resolving her own health challenges with natural medicine, Kate turned to Naturopathic medicine as a career and never looked back. She graduated from Toronto's Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in 2002 and was selected for the coveted residency program. Kate spent two and half years on the CCNM Academic and Clinic Faculties as a teaching assistant, guest lecturer and clinic supervisor. After a maternity leave Kate joined Natural Factors Nutritional Products as an educational spokesperson. In this capacity Dr. Kate travels across North America lecturing on many topics related to natural health. As an author Dr. Kate speaks internationally at many health conferences on the subject of vitamin K2. She is a frequent guest on television and radio and a sought-after, engaging speaker. Dr. Kate now makes her home in Ancaster, just west of Hamilton, Ontario.

Customer reviews

Customer Reviews, including Product Star Ratings help customers to learn more about the product and decide whether it is the right product for them.

To calculate the overall star rating and percentage breakdown by star, we don’t use a simple average. Instead, our system considers things like how recent a review is and if the reviewer bought the item on Amazon. It also analyzed reviews to verify trustworthiness.

Customers say

Customers find the book very informative and worthwhile reading about vitamin K. They also say it's well worth the price and clearly written with humor and insight. Readers also mention that the book is easy to read and inexpensive.

AI-generated from the text of customer reviews

Customers find the book very informative and valuable for healthy people. They say the information on vitamin K2 is practical and an eye-opener. Readers also say the book is the best starting point to dive in on the subject. They mention that it has a definite anti-cancer effect and helps form collagen in the bone matrix.

"...This book is absolutely a very important book , which in a couple of years nearly probably will be the only one in which we are getting the correct,..." Read more

"...This is also a fine celebration of the obscure work of a driven dentist, who, in the early 1930's became so disillusioned with his "drilling and..." Read more

"...I had been able to obtain the information in this well-written, well-researched book about Vitamin K2, which is not the K1 most people are familiar..." Read more

"...But it is a good start , especially if you have no background with K2...." Read more

Customers find the book very worthwhile reading, perfect, and easy to understand for anyone. They also say the author's work is lovingly executed and worth every penny spent.

"...a beloved leader in empirical fact, and this author's work is a lovingly executed and just tribute to the pioneering work of Doctor and Mrs. Price,..." Read more

"...So, while the book is interesting , I don't think you can believe it all, and it isn't the "last word" on the subject by any means." Read more

"...The book is just packed with incredible , life-saving information for not only people suffering from osteoporosis, but heart disease, arthritis,..." Read more

"...Well researched, well written, a pleasure to read , and illuminating with respect to how K2 helps restore good health and how we all came to be..." Read more

Customers find the book clearly written, with great humor and insight. They also say it's easy to read and re-read, and inexpensive.

"Doctor Kate Rheaume-Bleue has done a remarkable job of combining easy expository writing with an extremely complex medical fact story, in a long..." Read more

"...but I found the information written in such a way that it is understandable but not just glossed over. There is some depth of science here...." Read more

"...of 4.7, but it does fall somewhere around 3 to 4 as it is still pretty well written ...." Read more

"...I could go on, but honestly, if you're looking for a good, easy to read but very informative book on vitamin K (and A and D) look no further...." Read more

  • Sort reviews by Top reviews Most recent Top reviews

Top reviews from the United States

There was a problem filtering reviews right now. please try again later..

a little life book reviews

Top reviews from other countries

a little life book reviews

  • About Amazon
  • Investor Relations
  • Amazon Devices
  • Amazon Science
  • Sell products on Amazon
  • Sell on Amazon Business
  • Sell apps on Amazon
  • Become an Affiliate
  • Advertise Your Products
  • Self-Publish with Us
  • Host an Amazon Hub
  • › See More Make Money with Us
  • Amazon Business Card
  • Shop with Points
  • Reload Your Balance
  • Amazon Currency Converter
  • Amazon and COVID-19
  • Your Account
  • Your Orders
  • Shipping Rates & Policies
  • Returns & Replacements
  • Manage Your Content and Devices
 
 
 
   
  • Conditions of Use
  • Privacy Notice
  • Consumer Health Data Privacy Disclosure
  • Your Ads Privacy Choices

a little life book reviews

IMAGES

  1. A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara: a book review

    a little life book reviews

  2. Book Review: A Little Life

    a little life book reviews

  3. Book Review: A Little Life

    a little life book reviews

  4. A Little Life

    a little life book reviews

  5. Book Review: A Little Life

    a little life book reviews

  6. Book Review: "A Little Life" is Emotionally Torturous

    a little life book reviews

VIDEO

  1. Reviewing IT HAD TO BE YOU By Mary Higgins Clark & Alafair Burke

  2. Reviewing THE STORY OF THE BEE GEES CHILDREN OF THE WORLD By Bob Stanley

  3. An amazing reading week! Book reviews

  4. Reviewing CHRYSALIS By Anna Metcalfe

COMMENTS

  1. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

    A Little Life is a strong contender for the award for the most depressing book I've ever read.I swear I'm not even exaggerating. At this point, I'm not certain whether this is a positive or negative review. There's no doubt that this book is beautifully-written and contains some of the most raw and honest prose I've ever had the pleasure or misfortune of reading, but it's a long very long ...

  2. Review: 'A Little Life,' Hanya Yanagihara's Traumatic Tale of Male

    100 Best Books of the 21st Century: As voted on by 503 novelists, nonfiction writers, poets, critics and other book lovers — with a little help from the staff of The New York Times Book Review.

  3. Review: 'A Little Life' By Hanya Yanagihara : NPR

    Review: 'A Little Life' By Hanya Yanagihara In Hanya Yanagihara's deeply moving novel, college friends rise, lose their bearings, fall in love, squabble and wrestle with life's tragedies in New ...

  4. A LITTLE LIFE

    Happy endings await almost everyone—except for readers of this nobly preachy snifflefest. The best-selling author of tearjerkers like Angel Falls (2000) serves up yet another mountain of mush, topped off with syrupy platitudes about life and love. Share your opinion of this book. Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and ...

  5. Hanya Yanagihara's 'A Little Life'

    A LITTLE LIFE. By Hanya Yanagihara. 720 pp. Doubleday. $30. Carol Anshaw's most recent novel is "Carry the One.". A version of this article appears in print on , Page 9 of the Sunday Book ...

  6. Book Review

    You don't get to a certain age and it stops.". literary fiction Contemporary LGBT Mental Health. 'A little life' by Hanya Yanagihara is 700 page epic that follows the lives of four friends in New York. Immersive, depressing and heartbreaking, this is a book that continues to polarise opinion.

  7. The Hanya Yanagihara Principle

    A Little Life was rightly called a love story; what critics missed was that its author is one of the lovers. This is Yanagihara's principle: If true misery exists, then so might true love. That ...

  8. A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

    Just about every one of A Little Life's 700 pages is saturated with trauma: child abuse, rape, domestic violence, dysfunctional families, addiction, self-harm, suicide, grief.

  9. A Little Life: Yanagihara, Hanya, Wyman, Oliver: 9781511358606: Amazon

    Dimensions. 5.25 x 0.6 x 6.75 inches. ISBN-10. 1511358602. ISBN-13. 978-1511358606. See all details. "Layla" by Colleen Hoover for $7.19. From #1 New York Times bestselling author Colleen Hoover comes a novel that explores life after tragedy and the enduring spirit of love. | Learn more.

  10. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: Summary and reviews

    Published 2022. About this book. A funny, transporting, surprising, and poignant novel that was one of the highest-selling debuts of recent years in Korea, Love in the Big City tells the story of a young gay man searching for happiness in the lonely city of Seoul. We have 18 read-alikes for A Little Life, but non-members are limited to two results.

  11. Book Review: 'A Little Life,' by Hanya Yanagihara, inspires and

    Hanya Yanagihara's new novel, " A Little Life ," is a witness to human suffering pushed to its limits, drawn in extraordinary detail by incantatory prose. At the opening, four young men move to ...

  12. A Little Life : The Great Gay Novel Might Be Here

    Hanya Yanagihara's novel is an astonishing and ambitious chronicle of queer life in America. By Garth Greenwell. David K. Wheeler. May 31, 2015. In a 2013 essay for Salon, the culture writer ...

  13. All Book Marks reviews for A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

    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. From the moment I picked up A Little Life, I couldn't put it down. I read the whole thing in three days.

  14. Book Marks reviews of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

    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. From the moment I picked up A Little Life, I couldn't put it down. I read the whole thing in three days.

  15. REVIEW: 'A Little Life'

    5 min read. ·. Jun 27, 2021. --. "When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're broke, adrift and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel painter pursuing fame in the art world; Malcolm, a ...

  16. A Little Life

    A Little Life was initially met with widespread acclaim from critics, although the book's reputation has in recent years become more divisive. In 2015, the novel received rave reviews from The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications.

  17. Reading guide: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

    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 ...

  18. A Little Life is the best novel of the year. I wouldn't ...

    by Jeff Chu. Dec 29, 2015, 7:21 AM PST. Shutterstock. "Be quiet! Don't cry! Shhh. I cried my way through Hanya Yanagihara's novel A Little Life. Critics have called it "exquisite," "a masterwork ...

  19. BOOK REVIEW: Hanya Yanagihara

    In the second half of the book, it felt to me like the writer just flew through the rest of the story. The years went past quickly, there were unnecessary villains, and some romantic relationships made no sense whatsoever. But I might be a strange audience for the book. Everyone I know has cried while reading the book.

  20. Amazon.com: Customer reviews: A Little Life: A Novel

    Regardless of the reader's reaction to the novel, A LITTLE LIFE is an incredible accomplishment and a work which haunt the reader for a long time. [NOTES: (1) A LITTLE LIFE has recently been declared one of "The 20 Best Novels of the Decade" by Emily Temple for The Literary Hub on December 23, 2019.

  21. The Subversive Brilliance of "A Little Life"

    April 28, 2015. At the beginning of Hanya Yanagihara's new novel, "A Little Life," four young men, all graduates of the same prestigious New England university, set about establishing adult ...

  22. A Little Life: A Novel: Yanagihara, Hanya: 9780385539258: Amazon.com: Books

    Praise for A Little Life: NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST SHORT-LISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE FINALIST FOR THE 2015 KIRKUS PRIZE FOR FICTION "Yanagihara's immense new book, A Little Life, announces her, as decisively as a second work can, as a major American novelist.Here is an epic study of trauma and friendship written with such intelligence and depth of perception that it will be one of ...

  23. Book Review: 'A Little Life' by Hanya Yanagihara

    A Little Life follows the life of a young man named Jude, and his friends, Willem, JB, and Malcolm; their meeting at university; and their lives growing older in New York. Always intertwined in some respect, this book unravels the meaning of true friendship, which shines like a lighthouse beacon throughout the book.

  24. A Little Life by MALIKA RANI

    A Little Life" is a powerful and emotionally intense novel by Hanya Yanagihara, published in 2015. The story follows four college friends—Jude St. Francis, Willem Ragnarsson, JB Marion, and Malcolm Irvine—who establish their lives in New York City.

  25. 100 Best Books of the 21st Century

    As voted on by 503 novelists, nonfiction writers, poets, critics and other book lovers — with a little help from the staff of The New York Times Book Review. Many of us find joy in looking back ...

  26. Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox: How a Little-Known Vitamin Could

    The secret to avoiding calcium-related osteoporosis and atherosclerosis. While millions of people take calcium and Vitamin D supplements thinking they're helping their bones, the truth is, without the addition of Vitamin K2, such a health regimen could prove dangerous.