“He had come into the habit, before dinner, of taking a walk around the park: the laps, as slow as he pleased on some evenings, briskly on others, and then back up the stairs of the house and to his room to wash his hands and straighten his tie before descending again to the table.”First line in To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Published: January 11th, 2022
Genre: Literary Fiction
Buzzwords: Loneliness, stories spanning centuries, alternate reality
In an alternate version of 1893 America, New York is part of the Free States, where people may live and love whomever they please (or so it seems). The fragile young scion of a distinguished family resists betrothal to a worthy suitor, drawn to a charming music teacher of no means. In a 1993 Manhattan besieged by the AIDS epidemic, a young Hawaiian man lives with his much older, wealthier partner, hiding his troubled childhood and the fate of his father. And in 2093, in a world riven by plagues and governed by totalitarian rule, a powerful scientist’s damaged granddaughter tries to navigate life without him and solve the mystery of her husband’s disappearances.
These three sections are joined in an enthralling and ingenious symphony, as recurring notes and themes deepen and enrich one another: A townhouse in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village; illness, and treatments that come at a terrible cost; wealth and squalor; the weak and the strong; race; the definition of family, and of nationhood; the dangerous righteousness of the powerful, and of revolutionaries; the longing to find a place in an earthly paradise, and the gradual realization that it can’t exist. What unites not just the characters, but these Americas, are their reckonings with the qualities that make us human: Fear. Love. Shame. Need. Loneliness.
How do I even review this book? It had been an anticipated release of mine for a long time because I consider Yanagihara’s other very well-known book, A Little Life, to be one of my favorite books of all-time. So expectations were high although I didn’t anticipate a book that was better than A Little Life. And to be clear, it wasn’t. But that doesn’t change the fact that To Paradise is an incredibly strong and ambitious book.
Yanagihara chose an unusual structure for her story by splitting it into three “books”, two novellas and one full-length book. Each story takes place a hundred years apart in an alternate but still somewhat similar reality. We see a 1893 that looks much more appealing than our own because people can marry whomever they want. In 1993, we go to Hawaii and experience the complicated feelings of people whose culture has been/is being Americanized. And then the big finalé in 2093 where the world looks dystopian because of numerous pandemics and the government’s totalitarian responses to those pandemics (this part is a little too familiar).
Out of these books, the first one was a clear favorite of mine. We follow David, a young heir to a wealthy family, who, because of some mental problems, is finding himself alone while his siblings are living full and well-functioning lives. It was very emotional for me to read this story because I relate very painfully to David and his faults, and I think anyone who has experienced true loneliness over a long period of time will see parts of themselves in his character. It’s a deep exploration of loneliness and of how it can have a lasting and damaging effect on a person and make them do things they otherwise wouldn’t have done.
The second book is all about Hawaii where Yanagihara herself is from and you can really feel she has a lot to say. As a non-Hawaiian and also non-American reading this, this part definitely opened up a whole new world of information for me and even prompted a few google-searches of my own. That said though, I would call this the weakest part of the book. The loneliness from above is still a theme but we explore it from different angles that didn’t always fit seamlessly with the Hawaiian culture lessons, so this part dragged a little for me.
The book set in the future shows a very bleak reality where people basically only work and sleep. And that’s it. A totalitarian regime has banned most forms of entertainment and resources are scarce, so as you might imagine, loneliness is a theme here too. The book is dual-perspective with one taking place in the horror show that is 2093 and another that details the years leading up to 2093, showing us exactly how we went from a world similar to our own 2022 to something more similar to Orwell’s 1984. It’s eye-opening and kind of horrifying.
It’s very much a book you need to experience, so I don’t want to say much more for fear of ruining this very unique book for you. But who do I recommend it to? Well, it’s difficult to say. You know those lists of recommendations for people who want to get into reading/a new genre so the books on those lists are a bit easier? Yeah, this book is the opposite of that. This is the book for the seasoned reader who wants a challenge, the reader who loves trying to find the puzzle pieces that create the bigger picture, and who prefers it when the author doesn’t hold their hand. Yanagihara drops you in the sea and assumes you know how to swim, which I think is brilliant but ensures that it isn’t a book for everyone. If this does sound right up your alley though, I highly recommend this book. Yanagihara writes beautifully and emotionally about a bunch of unlikeable characters that just want to be understood, so while the book is both painful and depressing, it is also important and ingenious.