To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara (Doorstopper of the Quarter)

When I expressed interest in Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise on Twitter, having loved A Little Life and tepidly admired The People in the Trees, I didn’t expect to be chosen to receive one of my most anticipated releases of the year. A proof arrived while I was in the States for Christmas. As soon as I got back, I started it – with a vision of doing little else but reading it for a few days and reviewing it early in January. Instead, I read about 30 pages and set it aside, the 700-page heft mocking me from my coffee table stack for the better part of two months. Finally, I forced myself to set a daily reading goal: first 30 pages, then 40, then 60; and on Friday I read the last 100 pages over a couple sessions in the summerhouse. That regimented approach was what it took for me to get through my first doorstopper of the year.

The novel is in three parts – discrete enough to feel like separate books – set largely in 1893, 1993, and 2093. New York City’s Washington Square, even one particular house, recurs as a setting in all three, with some references to the American West and South and with flashbacks to time in Hawaii linking Books II and III.

The overarching theme is the American project: is freedom, both individual and collective, a worthy and attainable goal? Or are the country’s schisms too deep to be overcome? Class, race, sexuality, and physical and mental illness are some of the differences that Yanagihara explores. Even when equality of treatment has been won in one time and scenario – same-sex marriage is de rigueur in her alternative version of the 1890s, where the USA is divided into several nations – there is always the threat of a taken-for-granted right being retracted.

In Book I, David Bingham, who is to inherit his grandfather’s Washington Square property, considers a family-approved arranged marriage with an older man, Charles, versus eloping with a lower-class male teacher, Edward, with whom he has fallen in love. Edward wants them to light out for California, where new opportunities await but homosexuality is outlawed. Can they live in freedom if they’re repressing an essential part of their identity? The austere, elegant tone is a pitch-perfect pastiche of Henry James or Edith Wharton. Although this section took me the longest to read, it was the one I most appreciated for its flawless evocation of the time period and a rigid class structure. As in The Underground Railroad, though, the alt-history angle wasn’t really the most memorable aspect.

In Book II, David Bingham, also known as Kawika, is a paralegal having a secret affair with Charles, a partner in his law firm. Various friends and former lovers in their circle have AIDS, but Charles’s best friend Peter is dying of cancer. Before Peter flies to Switzerland for an assisted death, Charles throws him one last dinner party. Meanwhile, David receives a long letter from his ill father recounting their descent from Indigenous nobility and his failed attempt to set up a self-sufficient farm on their inherited land in Hawaii. This strand is closest to Yanagihara’s previous novels, the gay friendship circle reminiscent of A Little Life and the primitive back-to-the-land story recalling The People in the Trees. I also thought of Mrs Dalloway – David wanted to get the flowers for the party himself – and of Three Junes.

Book III is set in a dystopian future of extreme heat, rationing and near-constant pandemics. The totalitarian state institutes ever more draconian policies, with censorship, quarantine camps and public execution of insurgents. The narrator, intellectually disabled after a childhood illness, describes the restrictions with the flat affect of the title robot from Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun. When a stranger offers her the chance to escape, she is forced to weigh up freedom against safety. An alternating strand, based around letters sent by a Chinese Hawaiian character, traces how things got this bad, from the 2040s onwards.

While the closing speculative vision is all too plausible, two other literary/science fiction releases I’ve read this year, Sea of Tranquillity by Emily St. John Mandel and How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu, are more powerful and direct. Book III takes up half of the text and could stand alone, but the fact that it appears as a culmination of two other narratives creates false expectations that it can’t meet. The connections between the three are incidental – abandonment by a mother, a child raised by a grandparent, an arranged marriage, isolating illness – with recurring tactics like stories within stories and epistolary sections. The most overt cohesive strategy, the repeating of names across time periods, feels gimmicky and, again, sets readers up for a letdown by promising meaning that isn’t there.

Ultimately, the message seems to be: America’s problems are inherent, and so persist despite apparent progress. It takes a lot of words to build to that somewhat obvious point. I couldn’t suppress my disappointment that none of the storylines are resolved – this does, however, mean that one can choose to believe things will turn out happily for the characters. Their yearning for a more authentic life, even in a rotten state, makes it easy to empathize with their situations. I had high regard for the self-assured cross-genre prose (my interest waning only during the elder Kawika’s improbably long letter), but felt the ambition perhaps outshone the achievement.

As I learned when reviewing a recent book about American utopian projects, Heaven Is a Place on Earth, and interviewing its author, Adrian Shirk, an imagined utopia and a projected dystopia aren’t actually so different. Here was her response to one of my questions:

At one point you say, “utopia is never far from its opposite.” Dystopian novels are as popular as ever. To what extent do you think real-life utopias and fictional dystopias have the same aims?

I think real-life utopian experiments and fictional dystopias both offer warnings about the dangers of relying too much on ideology, and not enough on living, or choosing the person over the belief. So, in that way, real utopian experiments and fictional dystopian narratives are two sides of the same coin: a dystopia is a utopia that lost sight of—or never included—understanding itself as resistance to a violent empire, and thus starts to look like a violent empire itself.

Both start by diagnosing a societal sickness. The question is how we then get to paradise.

 


Page count: 701

Book I:

Book II:

Book III:

 My overall rating:

With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.

29 responses

  1. I didn’t fancy this when I first heard about it, though I keep thinking my husband might like it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d be interested to hear how he gets on! It’s quite an undertaking, and whether or not it’s worthwhile is debatable. For me, since I’d read her others, I did want to know what all the fuss was about.

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  2. Thanks for the review. I definitely will not be reading the book. I appreciated A Little Life, but this one has no appeal for me. Each to their own.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was suspicious of the past/present/future structure, which I think has been done better by other authors. Her writing is still fantastic here, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Given that doorstoppers are always somewhat daunting, I don’t think I’ll be embarking on this one, thanks to your comprehensive review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely daunting! I used to aim for one a month, but these days I’m lucky if I get to 3-4 in a year.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s taken me three months to get half way through War and Peace …

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ha ha, I’m not surprised! I have never had any traction with the Russian masters.

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  4. Still sounds like a good book to get lost in, and perhaps better for knowing that certain things won’t “pay off”. I still have A Little Life to get to though!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d read quite a lot about the book before I launched in, thanks to writing the summary and survey of critical opinion for Bookmarks magazine. So I knew not to expect concrete links or closure, but still found myself let down. I’d definitely say prioritize A Little Life over this one!

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  5. Thanks for this review. A lot of the book went completely over my head, so it’s good to read someone else’s thoughts that can clarify the overall message. That letter sure went on a bit. ‘Ambition outshone the acheivement’ sums it up for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s interesting you say that. I thought the connections could be clearer. I’m glad you found my thoughts helpful!

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  6. I had an easier time reading this than you did, even though alternative history fiction isn’t my thing, and I thought the main characters were extremely passive. However, I was ultimately drawn in.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, that’s a good point. They do all seem trapped in repressive systems. The question is do they break free?? Book III did have me gripped, but it took me a long time to get there.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m hesitating over this one because of the size – I only a tackle a book this size about once a year (my attention span is too short!).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know what you mean. I have very limited staying power with doorstoppers these days. It’s an odd one in that it feels like three separate books. I wonder if you could get away with just reading Book I (my favourite)!

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  8. I’m only really interested in the last strand! Love your phrase ‘tepidly admired’ for The People in the Trees. After A LIttle Life which I loved and hated in equal measure, I decided she probably isn’t an author I want to continue with until she pares it down and writes a novella! (wishful thinking?)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Could you try just reading Book III (entitled ‘Zone Eight’)?! I wonder how much of this she’d completed before the pandemic. I get the feeling she writes extremely quickly, so the quality and quantity of words here are truly impressive. But yes, a tightly honed novella is its own sort of achievement. It would have been interesting if she’d released the three parts as separate books.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Interesting review! I think readers are going to take away very different things from To Paradise, although I agree with you that the second section was the weakest. I was fascinated by its exploration of how societies treat social outcasts, and particularly Part Three’s consideration of whether the passions that ‘make us human’ are worth it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I surveyed the critical opinion, the reviews were so polarized. Almost the most various I’d ever seen. Charlie was an interesting choice of narrator for Book III — like Ishiguro’s Klara, she’s not quite fully human, as it were.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I enjoyed A Little Life but also thought it was overlong. I don’t think I want to invest many hours in reading her latest one given the flaws you’ve identified.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This was less worth spending time with, I think.

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  11. It must have felt good to finish this, especially with all the life stuff you have going on.
    I’ve still only read her first book. I can’t decide how badly I want to read the other two. The premise of this one actually appeals to me more than A Little Life, even though people seem to prefer A Little Life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was definitely proud of myself for getting through it! All those weeks when I was stuck on page 30, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever go back and finish it. If you’re attracted to the premise, why not try it instead of A Little Life? You might especially like Book II.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. What a great review. I love your system of daily page counts for getting it done. It’s not one I want to add to the TBR list, but now I have a better understanding of what it’s about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I often have to set page goals for review books and library books, if there’s a deadline involved. It’s an easy way to make sure I see progress. I wish the other members of my book club would adopt the same strategy 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I can totally relate to the regimented approach you took to finishing your reading project with this hefty tome. That was quite a stint at the end there, a whole hundred pages in a single day, not your usual technique! It sounds like a story I’d appreciate but I’m not looking for any new doorstoppers just now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can be strict with the deadlines I set for myself!

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  14. […] year. Like two of its fellow entries on that list, Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel and To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara, it’s just the right blend of literary fiction and science fiction – an […]

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