Rand believed that We the Living was not widely reviewed, but Rand scholar Michael S. Berliner says "it was the most reviewed of any of her works", with approximately 125 different reviews being published in more than 200 publications. Overall these reviews were mixed, but more positive than the reviews she received for her later work. In The New York Times, reviewer Harold Strauss said Rand had "a good deal of narrative skill", but the novel was "slavishly warped to the dictates of propaganda" against the Soviets. Kirkus Reviews called it a "first rate" representation of the realities of life in Soviet Russia. In his syndicated "A Book a Day" column, Bruce Catton called it "a tragic story" about the harmful impact of revolution on the middle class. Another reviewer recommended it as a realistic look at the impact of Soviet policies, but warned it was not for the "squeamish" or those unaccustomed to "the continental viewpoint toward sex relationships".
When the book was released in Australia, it received several positive reviews. In the Australian Women's Weekly, news editor Leslie Haylen described the novel as "very vivid, human, and wholly satisfying", saying it described Russian life without taking sides. The Barrier Miner said it was "entertaining" and "intensely moving", and not at all propaganda. The Wodonga and Towong Sentinel called it a "vivid story" that showed Russia "dispassionately, without once imposing any preconceived ideas on the reader".
Rand scholar Mimi Reisel Gladstein compared it to two of her later novels, saying, "While it does not have the power of The Fountainhead or the majestic sweep of Atlas Shrugged, We the Living is still a compelling story about interesting characters." Historian James Baker said it was "preachy" and "indoctrinated without entertaining".