I can’t say enough about this book. It is a very intense, but extremely well-written 800+ page book that requires stamina and emotional strength to read and digest, but it is so well worth the time and effort as it treats a beautiful homosexual relationship with respect and does not get down into the weeds with inappropriate sexual descriptions or contrived dialogues meant simply to entice certain readers. It simply expresses their love, respect and concern for each other throughout the story in the most natural way, without calling the relationship into question because of its sexuality, but rather expressing the beauty of their absolute expression of love and support for each other. Reading it will be an exhaustive experience requiring frequent breaks to recuperate from the complete immersion into this brilliant tale filled with traumatic events as it follows four young men from diverse backgrounds into their futures. There are times when the reader might want to suspend disbelief, but only because the reader will want to believe that the descriptions of some events could not possibly be real, even though they could be. Hopefully, in real life, they would not occur in so great a number to one character.
Jude St. Francis is only 16 years old when he meets Willem Ragnarsson, Malcolm Irvine and JB Marion when they are all roommates at college. His background is the thing of nightmares, but their friendship is a thing of beauty that carries him throughout his life. Their inter-relationships are exceptional. Their cultures and heritages are diverse in terms of race, sexual orientation and wealth, yet in spite of their differences, over the years, their friendship blossoms and grows stronger; their careers develop with ups and downs, failures and successes. They fall in and out of love, and they make mistakes and amends. They are there for each other when one or another is in need, always ready to offer support. Ultimately, Jude, about whom the novel is focused, becomes a successful lawyer, Malcolm becomes a renowned architect, JB achieves fame as an artist, and Willem morphs into a famous film star.
Jude St. Francis was abandoned as a baby and then sheltered by monks. He lived in the monastery and was brought up in the harshest of environments, without a formal education. He was basically a servant taught to perform whatever chore was needed which meant he was even sometimes painfully raped by the brothers. When he rebelled or made mistakes he was severely punished and beaten. He began to expect that it was a natural part of life. One of the monks, Brother Luke, was kind to him. He befriended him and, eventually, when Jude was 8 or 9 years old, they made their escape together. Luke never suspected what his life would suddenly become. Without money, Jude was soon trained by Luke to be a male prostitute. Luke also began to force Jude into a sexual relationship with him, but the pretense was that they both wanted it. Jude was just a child and so, he was obedient. He was afraid of being abandoned and left alone. When he despaired of his life, Luke taught him how to cut himself to relieve his stress. The physical pain seemed to calm his emotional pain as he punished himself for the behavior he was forced to engage in against his will. He was, after all, only a child.
When Brother Luke committed suicide to resist capture by the police, Jude was placed in a home where his handsome face and carriage made him a mark once again, and he was soon raped and abused by the counselors. He became proficient providing sex to those who demanded it. Distraught, he finally runs away from the home, uses sex as a source of funds, and grows exhausted. Found sleeping against a tree by a Dr. Traylor, he is basically kidnapped and once again mistreated and forced to prostitute himself. When he resists he is beaten and, ultimately, after trying to escape, he suffers severe and permanent bodily harm at the hands of that deranged doctor. He is left with a permanent limp, scars, and episodes of extreme pain. He is subject to frequent infections which become more and more difficult to heal because of his injuries. He hates himself and only finds relief by punishing himself with pain, so he begins cutting himself again as taught by Brother Luke. Jude believes Luke was always kind to him since he did not beat him, but he too raped him and forced him into a life of prostitution. Hurting himself is his only relief from the memories of his nightmarish life.
Inspired by a nurse who cared for him in the hospital after he was so severely injured by Dr. Traylor, he applies and is accepted into college, younger than most of the students because Brother Luke had taught him his subjects well. He was bright and learned quickly. In school, one of his professors, Harold, took a great liking to Jude and he befriended him and took him under his wing. Jude was suspicious of the reasons but their relationship grew, and eventually, the professor and his wife Julia adopted him even though he was an adult. They had lost a child and the adoption worked well for both of them, filling a void in their lives; one gained a child and the other gained parents. Although the adoption was a really positive moment in Jude’s life, he still felt unworthy because of what he had been forced to do as a boy. He couldn’t forgive himself for his shameful prior life, and he could not reveal his history to anyone because he believed his sins were unforgivable and that he was hateful even though his behavior was not his personal choice. Those close to him knew that he was very troubled and haunted by memories.
Jude had no interest in sex, it represented nightmares for him, but one day a man sought legal advice and they developed a relationship. It became abusive and, unexpectedly, Caleb introduced Jude to another tragic episode in his life as he was severely disturbed and violent. He caused even more grievous injuries to Jude. Jude had led such a peculiar life that he was ill prepared to fight the evil around him in the world and although he was educated and a successful lawyer, he believed he was unworthy and deserved to be abused when these incidents occurred.
Fortunately, Willem and Jude reached the conclusion that they were meant to be together. This had a positive effect on the life of both men, but it especially changed Jude’s life. He could not believe that someone actually could want him for himself. They shared a deep and abiding love for each other. Their friends, family and associates were overjoyed for them both. Their relationship was beautifully developed and interwoven into the novel and it is described by the author in perfect taste. Theirs is a relationship that seems made in heaven. Their affection and consideration for each other’s needs comes right off the page into the reader’s heart. It is impossible not to love Willem and Jude, even with the difficult problems they soon faced. They were devoted to each other, and they faced every challenge together.
Andy Contractor is the doctor and good friend who treated Jude exclusively throughout his life. Jude would show no one else his body which was horribly scarred from the injuries and self inflicted cutting wounds. They were a constant source of humiliation and shame for him. Andy is about a decade older than Jude, and although he realizes that Jude is psychologically damaged, he has rarely been able to influence him to seek help, even as he continues to save his life with each stressful episode of illness. He refuses to abandon him or to have him committed for psychiatric evaluation. He does constantly recommend and finally insist that he see a psychiatrist.
Reading this book is an emotional roller coaster requiring frequent breaks to prevent becoming overwhelmed with emotion. The book is more than 800 pages of beautifully written dialogue that reveals the details of the lives of each of the young men as they turn into older adults. Through the years, the sharing of their lives is mostly a thing of beauty, but it is also often marred by the tragedies that life inflicts upon them. The author outdid herself connecting the different threads of each of their lives. The characters are so real, you can almost reach out and touch them, you can, for certain, see them in your mind’s eye. The novel is written with compassion and deep insight into each character’s thoughts and feelings. Most readers will suffer with them as they experience failures and tragedies and then will rejoice in their happiness and success, as well. The behavior of the roommates was symbolic of many young students everywhere. They experimented with drugs and sex, went to parties, and sometimes fooled around with alcohol a bit too much. They occasionally took foolish chances. They were searching and hoping for a future that would make them happy so they could realize their dreams. Would they all accomplish their goals?
Although there are insinuations that the monks and counselors in these homes were damaged, although there might be the suggestion that Jude’s homosexuality was brought on by his environment and experiences, the sexual predilections of the characters was treated beautifully and without the judgment that some might imply. The insinuations about the church left no room for other interpretation, however, since it seemed that in that environment, there was no one who stepped in to protect Jude, but Luke, who was actually a pedophile. The monks seemed to enjoy punishing and forcing Jude into having sex with them. He was nothing but a slave to them, ridiculed and used regardless of his tender age.
How can I convey the way the novel moved me? It is complicated as it travels through about four decades in the lives of these roommates who lived together at school in the place they named the Hood. Their story will die with them since there are no offspring. Therefore, this tale of friendship, love, loyalty and devotion is complete in its telling. The readers will draw their own conclusions, but for me, this book was really the expression of a magnificent love as well as an analysis of dysfunction with a clear and non-judgmental eye about its causes and its effects.