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To Paradise

Review

To Paradise

It’s rare for a prominent novelist to offer three novels for the price of one, but that’s what Hanya Yanagihara has done in TO PARADISE, the follow-up to her critically acclaimed and commercially successful A LITTLE LIFE. Encompassing 200 years of American life, its three independent but deftly interrelated segments combine the elements of a traditional social novel with alternative history and dystopian fiction, and moving stories of romantic and family love, in inventive --- and ultimately satisfying --- fashion.

Beginning in 1893 and continuing at 100-year intervals, Yanagihara links her three books through an elegant Washington Square townhouse, a handful of other settings in New York City, and the unusual device of characters with identical names who populate each segment. It’s easy to get twisted into mental knots trying to discern the relationships among the David Binghams, Edward Bishops, Charles Griffiths and a cohort of echoing minor characters, but that shouldn’t detract from an appreciation of Yanagihara’s storytelling skill.

"Encompassing 200 years of American life, [the book's] three independent but deftly interrelated segments combine the elements of a traditional social novel with alternative history and dystopian fiction, and moving stories of romantic and family love, in inventive --- and ultimately satisfying --- fashion."

The opening section --- “Washington Square” --- tells the story of David Bingham, scion of a wealthy banking family, who resides in the Free States, a semi-independent republic that prohibits slavery but fails to grant equal rights to its Black inhabitants, while fully sanctioning same-sex marriage. David’s grandfather, Nathaniel, seeks to pair him in an arranged marriage with businessman Charles Griffith. But David falls into a passionate affair with Edward Bishop, an impoverished young man he meets at the school where they both teach. The story’s drama turns on the question of whether Edward is a faithful romantic partner or a faithless con man intent on stealing David’s sizable inheritance.

In “Lipo-Wao-Nahele” (the Hawaiian term for “Forest Paradise”), the novel’s least compelling section, David and Charles reappear as a paralegal and three-decades-older senior partner at a Manhattan law firm, whose romantic relationship flourishes at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Midway through, the story shifts to a first-person account by David’s father, institutionalized as he recovers from a mental breakdown. He’s a descendant of Hawaiian royalty who falls prey to the quixotic longing of another Edward Bishop to reinstate the monarchy not long after the arrival of statehood.

“Zone Eight,” the novel’s final book, comprising fully half of its 700 pages, is its most richly plotted. It’s set in the second half of this century, in an American police state experiencing climate change so severe that bamboo grows in the former Central Park and on the hottest days its inhabitants can only venture outside wearing cooling suits. Worst of all, it’s wracked by a succession of ever-deepening pandemics.

Yanagihara patiently peels back the layers of this dystopia to reveal its eerie plausibility and horror. Dr. Charles Griffith, a virologist who plays a key role in the middle of the century in establishing “relocation centers” --- a euphemism for death camps for plague victims --- devotes his life to preserving that of his granddaughter, Charlie. She is dealing with the physical, intellectual and emotional side effects of an experimental drug she received in the pandemic that struck during her childhood.

In each of these independent and yet subtly linked narratives, TO PARADISE dwells on recurring themes that include nationalism, inequality, mental illness, race and gender, and challenges readers to reflect on whether history is linear or circular. If it’s not the Great American Novel, Yanagihara, who says she began the work well before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, clearly is intent on making some big, and not altogether flattering, statements about the American character and the land Dr. Griffith says is “not for everyone” and is “a country with sin at its heart.”

These concerns clearly preoccupy her. In a recent interview for the Guardian, Yanagihara remarked on Americans’ “vitality, our childlike qualities…our optimism and generosity, but also our spoiltness, our tantrum-throwing, our inwardness, our myopia.” For her, arguments about issues like vaccine mandates, climate change, race and immigration “feel more urgent now because the threat is much more intense, especially when it comes to climate change and disease.”

And yet, TO PARADISE never succumbs to didacticism because Yanagahira is determined that we not lose sight of the humans at the heart of each story. “To live a life in color, a life in love: Was that not every person’s dream?” asks the David of “Washington Square,” a story dominated by his love affair with Edward. “Lipo-Wao-Nahele” doesn’t turn its gaze from the tragedy of 20th-century David’s father, who tells his son that “I wanted to share something with you, something that --- rightly or wrongly --- I had created for us, a realm in which I made decisions for you that I thought might help you in some way, that might enrich you in some way.”

In “Zone Eight,” despite the grim portrait of life in a totalitarian country with no television, internet or foreign travel, and where an incipient plague is about to dwarf the horrors of the ones that came before it, the love between grandfather and granddaughter remains in the foreground. Haunted by ineradicable guilt, Dr. Griffith confesses that despite his moral cowardice, when it comes to Charlie, “you will never abandon her, even as she has become someone you can’t access and don’t understand.”

Managing somehow to maintain that sense of intimacy in the midst of a potentially overpowering drama is not an easy task. TO PARADISE isn’t a perfect novel, but it’s a memorable one, and its resonance is likely to grow stronger with time.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on January 14, 2022

To Paradise
by Hanya Yanagihara

  • Publication Date: January 11, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 720 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385547935
  • ISBN-13: 9780385547932