Book Review

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara – Book Review

“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

My rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Buzzwords: Loneliness, stories spanning centuries, alternate reality

Synopsis

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.

Goodreads

Review

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.

10 thoughts on “To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara – Book Review

  1. 🥰🥰🥰 I mean, you already knew I had been anticipating this review, but that doesn’t change the fact that I loved it! That part about Yanagihara dropping you in the sea and hoping you know how to swim has got to be the most accurate metaphor ever, because, to be honest, I’m still not sure if I’ve fully figured out the swimming part 😅 To Paradise is definitely a book that has made me think more than anything I have read in ages, and I really valued getting your thoughts in addition to mine! (And all of your name-related research, too, of course 😂)

    But anyway, I feel like you already know way too much about my thoughts on this book already (and I need to finish writing this before I need to change trains 😅), so I’m just going to end this comment on my ranking of the different parts, which I don’t think I’ve explicitly told you yet:

    Book 3 (2093) > Book 1 > Book 3 (before 2093) > Book 2 (part 2) > Book 2 (part 1)

    So at least we agree on book 2 being the weakest, I guess 😉 Although I never really thought it dragged because I was just so invested in these characters, how they were related, and how sad all of their lives were 😭

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you still loved it despite knowing pretty every single one of my thoughts about this book already 😅 And well, doing all those Lost in Translation posts has really taught me that there can be meaning behind names so I’m always googling names when I don’t understand a book 😄

      And I guess I need to share my ranking of the parts then, too, because it’s surprisingly different from yours 🤔:

      Book 1 > Book 3 (before 2093) > Book 2 (part 1) > Book 3 (2093) > Book 2 (part 2)

      So while we agree on book 2 being the weakest, we’re clearly don’t agree on why 😅

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m actually not that surprised by our different rankings – I think they also reflect what we loved most while reading the book 🥰 Although I do think all of the parts interweave so ingeniously that you need all of them to fully appreciate the others! So my ranking might not represent the full picture… Like, I only love Book 2, Part 2 more than Part 1 because it simultaneously answered so many questions I had during that first part! (And because of how hopeless and sad I thought it was, obviously.) Otherwise, Part 1 might still have managed to top it because I really loved how the main character’s emotional state, his friendship with a certain other character, and everyone’s attitudes toward a dying character were portrayed… (By the way, people who haven’t read the book yet had better be so interested that they’re reading these comments, because trying to explain what I mean without spoiling anything major is driving me crazy!! 🙈 I don’t want to have tried so hard for nothing, and I also hope you actually understand what I’m trying to get across despite qll of the confusingness 😅) And the before 2093 parts that explained how the country slowly slid into totalitarianism were some of my favorite ones in the entire book and made me appreciate the post-2093 parts so much more!!! It’s just that I didn’t like their narrator (both in terms of the character and the audiobook narrator’s actual voice 🙈) as much, so it had to go lower in the ranking 😁

        But even if our reasoning is apparently very different, at least we agree on the book’s overall greatness! 😅

        Liked by 1 person

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