A Little Life
Goodreads ratings
4.31 / 5

"A Little Life" Summary

By Hanya Yanagihara

fiction | 720 pages | Published in 2015

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 readers.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cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity.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.


Estimated read time: 5 min read

One Sentence Summary

A group of friends navigate love, trauma, and the complexities of life in New York City.


"A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara is a profound and emotionally stirring novel that delves into the lives of four college friends as they navigate the complexities of adulthood in New York City. The book offers a poignant exploration of trauma, friendship, love, and the enduring human spirit. With its richly developed characters and deep emotional resonance, this novel has captivated readers worldwide.

Brief Synopsis

Plot Overview

"A Little Life" follows the lives of four friends—Willem, Jude, JB, and Malcolm—through several decades. The novel primarily focuses on Jude St. Francis, a brilliant and enigmatic lawyer with a traumatic past. As the narrative unfolds, it delves into Jude's harrowing history of abuse and the profound impact it has had on his life. The story explores the enduring bonds of friendship, the complexities of human relationships, and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable suffering.


The story is primarily set in New York City, offering a vivid portrayal of the bustling metropolis and the various social circles inhabited by the characters. The city serves as a backdrop for the characters' personal and professional lives, highlighting the juxtaposition of ambition and emotional struggle in a fast-paced urban environment.

Main Characters

The novel features an array of complex and multifaceted characters. Here are the main characters and brief descriptions of their roles in the story:

Jude St. FrancisA brilliant lawyer with a traumatic past, whose resilience and inner turmoil form the emotional core of the novel.
Willem RagnarssonA kind-hearted actor and Jude's closest friend, who is unwavering in his support and love for Jude.
JB MarionAn aspiring artist and photographer, whose career trajectory and personal journey intersect with the lives of the other characters.
Malcolm IrvineA talented architect who grapples with his own ambitions and the complexities of adulthood alongside his friends.

Story Points Over Chapters

The narrative of "A Little Life" unfolds through various story points across its chapters, each offering profound insights into the characters' lives and relationships:

Part I: Adulthood

  • The introduction of the four friends and their aspirations as they navigate the complexities of adulthood in New York City.
  • The early glimpses into Jude's enigmatic and troubled past, hinting at the traumatic events that continue to haunt him.

Part II: Friendship and Resilience

  • The deepening of the bond between the friends as they face the trials and tribulations of their respective careers and personal lives.
  • The exploration of Jude's enduring resilience in the face of his traumatic history, as his friends provide unwavering support.

Part III: Trauma and Healing

  • Revelations about the extent of Jude's traumatic past, shedding light on the profound emotional scars he carries.
  • The characters' collective efforts to confront the impact of trauma and seek healing, alongside the complexities of their evolving relationships.

Part IV: Love and Loss

  • Intimate portrayals of the characters' experiences with love, both romantic and platonic, as they navigate the joys and heartaches of human connection.
  • The profound impact of loss and the enduring grief that shapes the characters' lives, particularly Jude's journey through profound emotional turmoil.

Main Events

The novel features several pivotal events that shape the characters' lives and relationships, including:

  • Jude's revelations about the extent of his traumatic past and the enduring impact it has on his present.
  • Willem's unwavering support for Jude, despite the challenges and emotional complexities that arise in their friendship.
  • The characters' collective experiences with love, loss, and the enduring resilience that binds them together through life's trials.

Themes and Insights


  • Trauma and Resilience: The novel deeply explores the lasting impact of trauma on an individual's psyche, while also delving into the remarkable resilience that can emerge in the face of unimaginable suffering.
  • Friendship and Love: The enduring bonds of friendship and the complexities of love are central themes, portraying the profound impact of human connection in the characters' lives.
  • Identity and Self-Acceptance: The characters' journeys towards self-acceptance and understanding, particularly in the context of their personal histories and emotional struggles, form a compelling thematic undercurrent.


  • The novel offers profound insights into the complexities of human emotion and the enduring capacity for love and empathy, even in the face of profound suffering.
  • Through its portrayal of trauma and resilience, the story provides a nuanced exploration of the human spirit's ability to endure and seek healing, despite overwhelming odds.

Reader's Takeaway

"A Little Life" offers readers a deeply affecting and thought-provoking exploration of the human experience, drawing them into the lives of its characters with profound emotional resonance. The novel's portrayal of trauma, friendship, and the enduring human spirit leaves a lasting impact on readers, prompting reflection on the complexities of human emotion and the enduring power of connection.


In "A Little Life," Hanya Yanagihara crafts a profoundly moving narrative that delves into the depths of human emotion and resilience. Through its richly developed characters and poignant exploration of trauma and friendship, the novel offers a resonant and emotionally stirring reading experience that lingers in the hearts and minds of its audience.

A Little Life FAQ

  1. What is the genre of 'A Little Life'?

    A Little Life is a contemporary fiction novel.

  2. Who is the author of 'A Little Life'?

    The author of 'A Little Life' is Hanya Yanagihara.

  3. What is the book's plot about?

    The book follows the lives of four college friends over decades, focusing on one of the friends, Jude, and his traumatic past.

  4. Is 'A Little Life' suitable for all readers?

    No, the book contains heavy and distressing themes, including abuse and trauma, so it may not be suitable for all readers.

  5. Is 'A Little Life' a standalone novel or part of a series?

    'A Little Life' is a standalone novel.

  6. What is the writing style of the book?

    The writing style is often described as lyrical, immersive, and emotionally intense.

  7. Does the book have trigger warnings?

    Yes, the book includes themes of abuse, trauma, self-harm, and other distressing topics.

  8. Is 'A Little Life' a bestseller?

    Yes, 'A Little Life' was a critically acclaimed bestseller and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.

  9. Are there any major awards won by the book?

    Yes, 'A Little Life' won several awards, including the Kirkus Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

  10. What is the overall tone of the book?

    The overall tone of the book is often described as melancholic and emotionally heavy.