To Paradise is a bold, sweeping novel that traverses three centuries and three imagined Americas, held together by the unified themes of love, loss and what it means to find utopia.
by Hanya Yanagihara
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.
To Paradise Review
Jeez, how do you even start to summarise a 701-page book that traverses three-time spans and three alternative versions of America?
Let’s have a go, shall we?
This sweeping novel is split into three parts, all set in New York, in a townhouse in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.
Part One, it’s 1893 and New York is part of the Free States, where you can live and love how you please. David Bingham, a young bachelor, has an arranged marriage set up to a wealthy widower called Charles Griffiths. Yet he is drawn to the penniless and shadowy Edward Bishop. Should he follow his heart, and run away with Edward, or his head, and marry Charles and keep his grandfather happy?
Part Two, it’s 1993 and a young Hawaiian man, David, lives with his much older, wealthy partner, Charles, whilst the city is in the clutches of an AIDS epidemic. The story flips between David and the letters of his sick father, unfolding the events of David’s childhood and home.
Part Three, it’s 2093 and the world has been ravaged by plagues and deadly viruses. Charlie is the granddaughter of renowned scientist Charles. She has been damaged by an earlier virus and we learn through her narration and Charles’ letters to a friend in New Britain, about the totalitarian regime that they live under and how life & love plays out.
Honestly, that’s just skimming the surface of the basic plot. Each part could serve as a novel in its own right and whilst there are connections between the different parts, they are more thematic or subtle nods to one another rather than being on the nose. Oh, and yes, there are a lot of Charles’, David’s, Edward’s and Nathaniel’s – that’s not me getting confused. You’ll get used to it.
It doesn’t have the constant gut wrenching sorrow of A Little Life, despite the loss and pain that each character faces. In To Paradise, it feels as if the author is exploring these ideas more, rather than using the emotions to play on the heart strings of the reader. Either way, the writing is just sublime – Hanya Yanagihara is a true master. She writes about huge themes – love, freedom, family, loss, and the idea of ‘paradise’ – in a deceptively easy way. I could read her writing forever.
It took me a while to get into the first story – it can be hard to place yourself for a while in the alternate world and understand the rules – but once I was in, I was invested. I enjoyed the third part in particular, which is the longest of the three, as I felt like I knew those characters the best.
If you’re looking for A Little Life part two, you won’t find it here. But what you will find is a fascinating work of art in its own right. Not for the faint-hearted, like anything Yanagihara writes, but worth every page.