Book Review: Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise

To ParadiseTo Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s always difficult, that second book, after the one you fell in love with. Can you read it on its own merits and try not to compare the two? But this was a hard task for me: I loved ‘A Little Life’, was engrossed in the story, felt deeply for the characters and I’m not sure another book has made me burst out crying (and in public, on a bus, no less).

To Paradise’s three-part structure promised some interest. I enjoyed a similar device in other novels, like Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, or I’m even thinking about Caryl Churchill’s play ‘Cloud Nine’, with two acts, where the same characters are portrayed in each act, separated by years, and the actors swapping roles, so there are interesting connections between them. This is what the cover blurb seemed to say what would happen, with connections between characters in the three parts hinted at, the same names, but for different people, and the same location and similar themes. But the novel is so massive, I actually found it difficult to make those connections, except for the house at Washington Square, that was a clear and easy connection between the sections, but I didn’t find the characters linked as closely as I would have liked to engage me.

And one of the clear themes and links between the sections was that the main characters have some mental illness or are neurodivergent. But because of this, I found it hard to connect with the characters, as they have problems connecting the world, or being understood, or are even in an institution. It was almost an opposite feeling to falling in love with the hero of ‘A Little Life’.

I liked the first section quite a bit: an alternate reality for New York in 1893, a sort of period drama, but with interesting twists: gay relationships are accepted, the US is split into parts. And then, the second section, Hawaii (and NYC) in 1993, I enjoyed the first part, the heir to the Hawaiian throne, if it still existed, navigating a relationship with an older man, and their farewelling of the older man’s friend, dying of AIDS. But then the story shifts to the heir’s father, telling his history in Hawaii, and while I should be interested in this (my mother was born in Hawaii), the narrative became strident and talky, describing the sovereignty movement.

The last section, which jumps time often, back and forth from 2093, and 50, 40, 30, 20 and 10 years before, was what really lost me. Portraying a future ravaged by new iterations of the COVID virus, an authoritarian government, and an overheated city from climate change, I found the vision depressingly familiar, not too big an imaginative leap from the worst of what’s happening now, and again I couldn’t help but compare this dystopia to the many others I’ve read. As a huge fan of Margaret Atwood, I’ve read these themes before in the Maddadam trilogy, which includes Oryx and Crake, and the Handmaid’s Tale: power, authority, governance, secrecy, environmental destruction, and collusion. I found To Paradise’s dystopic future not so engaging or original, just uncomfortably dark and imaginable. Likewise, the flashbacks are all told as a series of letters from one character to another, and the device was too familiar to me, and didn’t really engage me.

So, all in all, really confusing for me, perhaps because of my expectations. Why did I find so much at fault in this novel compared to the author’s previous one? I managed not to read other reviews of the book until I’d written my own: now, I’m off to see what everyone else thinks!

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And as a post-script, yes, I did read the other reviews. Fascinating to me to see the mix from professional reviews of rave reviews and poor reviews. It looks like the Times Literary Supplement has really given it a sledging, though I couldn’t read more than the first paragraph because of the paywall. One reviewer pointed out another big issue that was dissatisfying with the book: the author doesn’t give us endings. It’s ambiguous to what has happened. But as an artistic decision, I find this really lacking. It’s not like a make your own adventure: how great is it for us to imagine what happens! The readers have gotten through a ton of text to be left with … a lack of endings. Pretty infuriating.

One of the community reviewers from Goodreads pointed out something I found very interesting. I know that in this promotion tour, Yanagihara is leading with the statement that as an artist, she can write about anyone she wants, and inhabit anyone. I think this statement needs to be a lot more nuanced. Of course, writers should be able to inhabit different people, but it has to be done with sensitivity, respect and some understanding. Lionel Shriver putting on a big arse Mexican hat at a writer’s conference and being obnoxious about what she can or can’t do is not the way to go. I very much respected Yangihara’s story of a gay man and other gay men in ‘A Little Life’ because it felt honest and that it told me something about humanity. But as the reviewer pointed out for ‘To Paradise’, it’s fine to write gay characters, but when so many of them are gay, the question is whether the author is illuminating anything about the gay or human experience by doing so: for ‘A Little Life’, the answer was yes for me but for ‘To Paradise’, the answer, sadly, was no.

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