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.
Such an anticipated read and my biggest, heartfelt thanks to Emma at Bookbreak for gifting me this early proof of To Paradise. And now the hard bit, how on earth do I write a review for this mighty tome? Truthfully I don’t feel that I can do this book justice but I will try to formulate my thoughts and tell you about it now.
To Paradise is about just that; seeking something better – Paradise – whatever that may be. Set mostly in New York the house in Washington Square features in each section, the characters share some names – David, Charles and Edward are key in each section and they share some traits although they are not the same person. And that I think is a salient point, this book tells a story (or stories) over 3 time periods with some commonality in terms of location and character names but the links end there and the story is not linear in that respect.
Sexuality is central, as the story begins in the free states where love and marriage is legal for all, moving on 100 years and the AIDS pandemic is rife, secrecy surrounds homosexuality although it is still largely accepted. A century later in a world rife with pandemics the situation has changed again and same sex relationships are significantly disadvantaged and a move towards becoming illegal seems likely. Parenting is a key theme – most notably the role of Grandparents and the absence of parents and illness is also key, including mental illness.
David is a protagonist as is his relationship with his grandfather and father, although his ‘shape’ is different in each section, his relationship to Edward is always significant.
The second half of the book is part 3 and this is set in the future in a world constantly battling pandemics. In New York a totalitarian government is in power and this is mostly deemed necessary and accepted in response to the ongoing threat to health. This dystopian world is narrowed with limited travel, food rations and conspiracy theorists and activists being managed by the army. Public hangings are the punishment for non conformity. Truthfully this part of the book was hard to read, it felt very real and scary in our current climate.
The writing was sublime and while there were aspects of the book where I thought I might have ‘missed’ some links, I think it is a masterpiece. I was worried that the plot might be confusing, given what I had heard about it and what I have shared above, it wasn’t though and I think I found it helpful to appreciate the links and themes but to consider the sections almost as separate stories.
At 700 pages this is not a short read and the density of the writing makes it almost impossible to speed through this book. The writing is varied, for example in part 3 a ‘then and now’ format is used with the ‘then’ part told exclusively by letter. Parts of the novel are set in Hawaii and this is another link with characters in each section having Hawaiian origins and race, power and heritage are explored here. Each section ends with a character leaving… To Paradise.
The novel certainly packs a punch, broad and wide reaching it is a powerful and ambitious project. As a follow up to A Little Life it is difficult to draw comparisons between the two books, although Yanagihara demonstrates again her skill in characterisation and her range as an author. I think magnificent and admirable are words that come to mind and I anticipate lots of noise about this novel. I was left wondering and remain unclear as to the author’s intentions though, any thoughts on this from others who have read it would be welcome – I would love to have the discussion!
Will you be reading it?
About the Author
Hanya Yanagihara is the author of the internationally bestselling A Little Life. She lives in New York City