**spoiler alert** Personally, I'm a little amazed that this book is so highly rated, but I guess I can understand some of the reasons. The writing is**spoiler alert** Personally, I'm a little amazed that this book is so highly rated, but I guess I can understand some of the reasons. The writing is lovely for the most part, evocative and even haunting. The basic themes of friendship, love, abuse and struggling through life are powerful because they are universal. The characters were relatively well rounded and filled out and we are given the sense that these lives have weight.
However, this is all overshadowed by so much dross. Where to start? I guess with the book itself. At over 700 pages, it's far too long. I won't bother summing up the plot or characters, as I imagine that if you're reading this you already know what the book is about. I've read a few things here and there about Yanagihara battling with her editor over keeping certain things in the book. Which is fine and every author's right, but I really wish the editor had asked for a tradeoff and cut some of the needless exposition, boring tangents, descriptions of parties and dinners and pointless time jumping. Frankly, the book is a slog and I found myself skipping dozens and dozens of pages and paragraphs in the latter half of the book.
That's a pretty minor complaint however and not usually enough to drop a book so far down in my ratings. Unfortunately, the actual story itself really drags in parts. I could only read so much about Willem's boring-ass movie career, about JB's art and Jude's legal career. Malcom, supposedly a core member of the group, is basically relegated to an afterthought for the last three quarters of the book, but his career as an architect was just as boring, but mercifully we were spared much description of it.
Let's be honest here: the meat of the story is Jude and his past and the way Yanigahara drip-feeds it to us is the only reason to keep reading. It's actually compelling and finally finding out what actually happened to Jude is the thread that pulls you through. The fact that you have to wade through hundreds of pages of character lives to get there is excruciating. This is a book that I started out hating, suddenly began to enjoy then slowly came to dislike until reading it felt like a chore because it was our book club's choice. I try to finish all the books we choose, and the only reason I was able to get through the last 350 pages was because I was stuck in a hospital waiting room for six hours.
Anyway... Jude. Oh Jude. Spoiler alert: how can this guy be such a rape magnet? Seriously. It seems like the pretty much everyone that Jude encounters before the age of 16 only wants to rape him. Starting with the brothers at the monastery and continuing with Brother Luke who "rescues" Jude from said monastery with tales of building a cabin in the woods for the two of them, who instead turns Jude into a child prostitute, forcing him into sex with what seems like hundreds of paedophiles as they go from motel to motel across America. Jude is freed from Luke once the police track them down and Luke, rather than be caught, hangs himself in a motel bathroom. From there Jude is sent to a group home where - you guessed it - he is seemingly immediately singled out as eminently rapeable. One night after being raped by one of the "counsellors" (I guess in this world counsellors at group homes never go through criminal record checks. There seems to be a real paedophile epidemic in this reality) who falls asleep like a typical dude after busting his nut, Jude escapes and manages to flee to the forest. What's a young lad to do? The only thing how knows how to do of course: prostitute himself to truckers in exchange for rides. Jude's dream is to make it to Boston to go to college. He ends up in Philadelphia, broke, exhausted, sick and weak and passes out near a gas station. Who should find him but a twisted psychiatrist who first feeds and medicates Jude's STIs in order to turn him into his own personal fuckboy who he keeps malnourished and locked in a basement. Seriously, you've never seen so much rape in a book and we're not even done with the raping. So, after a few weeks of raping Jude is desperate to escape yet another tormenter and makes his attempt. He is unsuccessful and gets a beating for his efforts. On the plus side, the psychiatrist, Dr. Traylor, decides that he's done with Jude and probably needs a new victim, so he tells Jude to leave. Whoops! By leave he means stuff in the trunk of his car, drive out to a field and force Jude to run in front of his car until he collapses and Dr. Traylor runs him over. After all the foreshadowing on Jude's terrible "accident", to find out he was simply run over by a sadistic paedophile was kind of anti-climactic, in a way.
Regardless, Jude is finally free of the raping. Or is he? dun dun dunnnn... He recuperates in the hospital, finally meeting genuinely caring and non-raping person, a social worker named Ana, who helps Jude piece *ahem* a little life together. Of course, Ana soon dies of throat cancer because she smokes. Tsk, didn't anyone tell you those things'll kill you? But it's fine because Jude meets his group of friends, and while they all wonder about his past, for some reason they and everyone else he meets from then on in just falls right in love with the tall, slender 17 year old who always wears long sleeves and never talks about himself. I guess mysteries are beguiling.
Any one period of Jude's past - the monastery, the group home, the psychiatrist, the motel prostitution, being a "lot lizard" - would seem sufficient to set up the character of Jude. But no, this guy just needs to suffer over and over again. At this point I'll note that Yanigahara has given interviews stating that one of her goals in writing this book was to essentially make the reader suffer, to see how much we could take and then keep going. I guess that's one way to write a book, but I don't think it automatically makes the book compelling.
Anyway, Jude is pretty fucked up, as you can imagine, both emotionally and physically and to cope he not only keeps his past hidden but he's a cutter, slicing his arms and legs to ribbons on a regular basis. He also refuses to address his physical and emotional health in any meaningful or constructive way and yet people just can't help but fall in love with this young guy that despite all the rapings and trauma manages to learn piano and mathematics, sing like an angel and speak multiple languages. He becomes a hotshot lawyer, eventually to the point where he is offered the position of chairman of his huge law firm. Along the way he is also so beguiling a professor and his wife just straight up adopt him when he's 30. Because their son died when he was five, and I guess replacing him with a 30 year old headcase is the answer.
As you might notice, the rest of the group of friends has kind of faded to background noise, except Willem, the actor. For some reason Jude and Willem remain close friends when the others move away, get married, pursue their careers and do all that stuff we do when we become adults. As Jude becomes a lawyer, Willem slowly becomes a huge movie star, yet continues to maintain a close relationship with him. They are roommates for most of their lives, even though they can both afford their own homes. Willem is pretty concerned about Jude and likes to be near to make sure he's okay.
Willem becomes more and more famous, spending more time away from New York filming. Meanwhile, Jude without even trying catches the eye of Caleb, a fashion designer. They begin dating, but turns out Caleb is all weird about Jude's wheelchair because both of his parents died from long illnesses. Caleb is so bummed about wheelchairs and Jude's health and also a huge rageaholic that he beats and rapes Jude repeatedly. That's right, we're on the rape train again! Does Jude go to the police? Nope, just makes up stories about getting whacked with rackets during wheelchair tennis.
Caleb eventually peaces out because he thinks Jude is a worthless piece of shit and eventually dies of pancreatic cancer. C'est la vie.
Throughout all this, Jude's doctor, Andy Contractor (yes, that is his name) cares for him over a 30+ year friendship. He is the ultimate doctor, just dropping everything for home visits, keeping Jude eating, bandaging his razor cuts, urging him to therapy, basically enabling every terrible thing Jude does to himself and others. Andy fails time after time to commit Jude when in reality if he was any sort of friend and doctor he would have just said, "You know what Jude, fuck it. I can't let you do this anymore. Here's your straightjacket." But no, he just lets the shit go on year after year, decade after decade. Andy was actually pretty frustrating as a character because I don't know how in good conscience he could allow Jude to keep on as he did.
But whatever. Andy's a great shitty doctor and I get it that some people are just beyond helping and all you can do is maintain them. By now the guys are in their 40s and out of the blue, literally out of the blue, Willem decides that he not only loves Jude as a friend/brother, but he's attracted to him too. We're summarily informed that not only did Willem and most other male movie stars engage in the occasional dude on dude dalliance, but that Willem and JB had gone to the bone zone in college. Okay, news to me three quarters of the way through the book. There is literally no mention of any sort of gay leanings by Willem as he exclusively dates and sleeps with women throughout the rest of the book. But sure, that's cool man. He can be bi, why not? Once he and Jude start the sex stuff, which by the way is kind of like Jude raping himself because he just can't tell Willem that he doesn't like sex because of all the previous rapes he's suffered and feels that he owes Willem sex and Willem also wonders why Jude is so good at sex stuff and kind of wonders if Jude really likes it but ultimately just wants to keep sexing him, they ultimately end up having a pretty decent relationship. Except that eventually Willem finds out that Jude doesn't like sex and they stop having sex and Willem just starts having NSA sex with women. But an open relationship is cool, why not? Also, Willem comes out in the media as being in a relationship with a dude and it's nothing but sunshine and lollipops for his career. Which is a pretty nice commentary on how sexuality shouldn't matter, but in reality would probably see him getting the figurative shaft from Hollywood.
That's a lot of stuff and that's literally not even half the book. So much other stuff happens, most of it not really that interesting. All the stuff with Jude and his adoptive parents is pretty forgettable and honestly doesn't add much to the core of the story. Ditto Jude's baking and cooking, which seems weird for someone who barely eats. Any decent chef I've known, seen on TV or read books by is constantly sampling their food in order to know if it tastes good. You can't just cook up some shit and serve it and expect it to taste the way you expect it to. So much of the book felt that way to me, like it was filler because in serious lit long equals good. Characters do stuff and feel things and have traits not because they make sense but just because. Why did Jude bake and cook? Because it's a convenient way for him to cope, I guess? Why did Willem become an actor? No idea. Why do Harold and Julia adopt Jude? Who knows? Why does Willem finally decide he's gay or bi? Because it's a plot point, I suppose.
You'd suppose this was enough shit to put Jude through and I guarantee you that most people who'd suffered as Jude had would have long since developed a serious substance abuse problem. There's a point where no amount of cutting or baking is going to dull the feelings and emotions that would likely wash over you from the moment you awoke in the morning. Oh and also the nightmare you'd have every night.
I guess this is all a pretty long winded way of saying I didn't like a book very much. Obviously your mileage may vary, but in the end this book felt less like a contemporary fiction novel and more like a fuzzy alternate reality fantasy. Character motivations are thin, the world doesn't feel grounded in reality, nothing really makes sense. There's a couple mentions of smartphones, but no one apparently uses the internet - for anything - or watches TV or does anything fun. Instead they lazily stroll their way through a world of academia, art, travel and fine dining because everyone in this book is rich and successful.
In the end if Hanya Yanagihara's goal was to write a book that caused her readers to suffer along with her characters, if she wanted to see how far she could push us, she succeeded. That being said, while Jude's experiences are gruesome, Yahagira is curiously chaste with her language. For all the imagery she constructs, all the acts forced upon Jude, all the sex in the book, the language remains PG throughout. It's almost like she was afraid to use words like dick, fuck, shit, cock, piss or even benign terms like penis. I got the sense that this was an author that wanted to write about shocking sex but really wasn't comfortable with describing it so had to use vague terms and flowery wording.
Frankly, if this wasn't a book club selection for me, I never would have picked up it, so in that regards I'm glad I did, but beyond that I wouldn't have finished it otherwise. I'll take a twisted sex murder mystery any day of the week, but 700 pages of child rape, self mutilation and constant whining apologies (the word "sorry" appears 189 times) just made for a grind. I read to escape, not to be bored by self flagellating characters.
Writing this review has just changed my rating from 2 starts to 1. I knew from the moment I saw the cover photo of "Orgi-astic Man One" by Peter Hujar, that I would hate the book. Sometimes you can judge a book by it's cover....more