There is so much to love about this amazing book, written by a woman, about the deep and abiding friendships of men. This doesn't seem to be a subject that's tackled in literature nearly as often as women's relationships are. Willem, JB, Malcolm, and Jude bonded during their college years, forming their own small community of struggling artists, actors, and strivers. Gay, straight, bi-sexual, these men bring others into their circle, nurturing each other over decades of escalating successes that none thought he would ever achieve.
Vicariously we live the lives of the 1% through JB's rise as a renowned painter/photographer, Malcolm's success as an architect, Willem's acclaim as an oft-feted actor, and Jude's unusual turn from underpaid intern in the New York state attorney general's office to lethal litigator. These men live in unique Manhattan apartments, build get-a-ways in upstate New York, own pied-a-terres in London and Paris and Rome. And yet each has difficulty in finding his own true self separate from the group.
The novel mainly focuses on the relationship between Willem and Jude, a deep trust building slowly over time into a mature partnership. It becomes obvious early on that Jude has many secrets and that he has been appallingly, psychologically and physically damaged by someone in his past. Jude is in a continuous state of pain that is as much existential as it is real. Hanagihara doles out insights into Jude's childhood in chapters that are very difficult to read.
You must be prepared for the worst kind of abuse administered externally and by Jude upon himself. Be prepared to learn more about the act of self-loathing that is cutting than you ever would want to know. Only Willem can keep Jude's nightmares at bay and even when their life together seems to be leveling out into some semblance of normalcy, Jude is often just at the edge of psychosis.
I would not want to discourage you from reading this book. There are many delightful secondary characters that you'll enjoy getting to know. Jude's trusted physician Andrew and his adopted parents Harold and Julia stand out. While there is too much repetition of Jude's cutting episodes, there is also the insightful examination of a forty year love affair between two successful, caring, devoted men, which I think may be an eye-opener for many readers. Yes, this novel took me to ever lower depths but, truly, it was worth it.