This is Hardy's best book. It was considered so shocking and there was such a negative reaction to it that Hardy gave up writing novels for ever more.
It is quite a strange book. It is the story of Jude who is a stonemason by trade despite being a scholar by inclination. Jude also becomes involved with Sue who is one of the most interesting women in fiction and I guess is based on Hardy's wife.
Jude's life is one of grueling misery, disappointment and unfairness. It is Hardy at his most striking and insightful and also at his weirdest, see Old Father Time for instance. Just amazing and brilliant book. I think it is better than Tess of the D'Urbervilles and I think that Tess is amazing. Like Tess it is about the pitfalls of class and love.
I guess Hardy is out of fashion at the moment. My supposition is that it is because he is too good a writer, so that many people'sheads explode when they try to read him. It might be better to start with Tess or with Far from the Maddening Crowd because they are more accessible, but I deeply love this book.