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.
To Paradise is a fin de siècle novel of marvellous literary effect, but above all it is a work of emotional genius. The great power of this remarkable novel is driven by Yanagihara’s understanding of the aching desire to protect those we love – partners, lovers, children, friends, family and even our fellow citizens – and the pain that ensues when we cannot.
Do you ever feel a little apprehension when you pick up an anticipated read? This was one of my most anticipated 2022 releases. A Little Life is one of my all-time favorite books. There was just no way that my expectations were not going to be extremely high for this book. I was a little hesitant and afraid to start it, due to fear of being disappointed. And I waited until I had a break and a chunk of time to read it, because I wanted to give this book my full attention.
I didn’t know much about the story going in. I tried to stay away from reviews and other bookstagram posts before I started in order to avoid having my opinion influenced. But of course, I couldn’t help but see a few things. And I got the sense that other people who were also excited about this book had read it and realized that it wasn’t the book they were hoping it would be. As you can see, I’m trying to set the scene to provide context about my reading experience. This book made me think about expectations and other influences that affect how we experience a book.
To Paradise* is an ambitious and sweeping novel that didn’t grasp me the way I was hoping it would. Yanagihara writes about the human condition, the desire to find a place and a purpose in this world. About yearning to love someone and be loved in return. About seeking utopia and what that means to different people. About the idea of America as a nation. Her writing continues to be beautiful, but the emotional connection I was hoping to develop to the story and characters never came.
In Book I, I didn’t understand the use of certain language, even though I suppose it’s in keeping with the time. I questioned the existence of slavery, even in an alternate reality. I thought the structure of this book was interesting and also confusing at times. I wondered if we were in some kind of multiverse, with a variety of realities existing at the same time. I felt that the Book III in particular was too long and that the overall novel could have been a couple hundred pages shorter. And I didn’t enjoy the discussion around pandemics in the final Book. For me personally, it’s just too close to home, too soon.
I felt there was an emphasis on the relationships between grandparents and their grandchildren. What happens when parents are disappointments to their children or children are disappointments to their parents? We see grandparents that become surrogate parents, and in some ways, have the ability to try again, to correct the mistakes of their past. We see how people make decisions that affect the rest of their lives. Or, how they fall into decisions, stumble onto paths, and then are carried along, unable or unwilling to set a different course.
Of course, I loved that the book was set in New York and centered around Washington Square. And I’m still appreciative of her writing style. I wouldn’t say that this was a disappointing read, because at some point along the way, I realized that I wasn’t going to love this book, and so I let my expectations go. I think after catching glimpses of negative rumblings about the book, I thought I would be disappointed, but I still wanted to read it and form my own opinion. I can’t help but have expectations about the books I pick up. Not every book will live up to my expectations, and that’s ok.
This was a sweeping and experimental tale, with Yanagihara’s observant and cutting prose, but perhaps it was too ambitious, and in doing so, became convoluted. Several of her stylistic choices were puzzling, such as creating an alternate history in Book I and then completely abandoning it, or choosing to use the same character names throughout each Book, even though they are different characters. All the elements of this book did not come together for me. I think I was afraid that reading her latest novel might diminish or reduce my experience of reading A Little Life. I loved that book and I did not love this book, but I will still continue to be interested in anything else that Yanagihara decides to write. And now I’m so curious to hear what other people think about To Paradise. If you’ve read this one, let’s chat in the comments down below!
Have you read any of Hanya Yanagihara’s books?
*Thank you to the publisher for giving me a free copy of this book. All opinions are my own.
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