This is perhaps the most painful book I have ever read. It's beautifully written. Yanagihara traces the tiniest shades of emotion and thought, of interactions between characters, precisely and without getting overly writerly. The book begins as a story of four young men who leave a Massachusetts college for New York City. But it shifts fairly early into a deep delve into the traumatic past of one of the four, Jude St. Francis; and the other three characters largely recede into the background, except insofar as they relate to Jude (they love him, they paint and draw him, they're envious of him, etc.). Still, Jude's character is so well done that it's a wholly compelling read.
However (TOTAL SPOILER ALERT), the delve backwards reveals a harrowing childhood (like therapy, we get the worst and most deeply buried last) that includes being abandoned beside a dumpster, being rejected for adoption, continual sexual exploitation, a sadistic doctor, (and yes, there's more), all of which leads to Jude's self-abuse as an adult. It's just a really, really hard read. I confess that after the second passage about him cutting himself with a razor, I had to start skipping paragraphs. They were so graphic and perfectly described that they were putting images in my head that I couldn't set aside.
In some ways, the most heart-rending parts for me were those in which Jude interacted with all these kind people around him and always expected cruelty; he wonders how long he can keep them around, when they are going to leave, when he is going to arrive to find them locking the door against him and laughing at him. Of course they never do. We have the benevolent couple Harold and Julia, the heroic doctor Andy, and the brilliant Willem, all of whom love Jude constantly and with an almost unfailing generosity. And I have to confess, I found this part of the novel unbelievable. (Though that begs the question: what does it say about me that I can't believe anyone is going to love Jude so unconditionally?) They love him despite that fact that he frustrates them to no end by abusing himself and by distrustfully pushing them away, to try to reproduce the abandonment and cruelty he felt as a child ... and yet they all stay.
But that small gripe aside, this narrative is a testament to the capacity of the human spirit to survive and to find joy. I felt a hollow space carve out inside my chest reading this book; and yet I also felt it fill up. And it has haunted me for days after finishing it.