Book Review

To Paradise

To Paradise

  • Author: Hanya Yanagihara
  • Genre: Literary Fiction
  • Publication Date: January 11, 2022
  • Publisher: Random House Audio

I received an ALC of this book from libro.fm. I am offering my honest opinion voluntarily.

CONTENT WARNING: racism, mention of suicide, death of a child, forced sterilization

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Plot summary

From the author of the classic A Little Life, a bold, brilliant novel spanning three centuries and three different versions of the American experiment, about lovers, family, loss and the elusive promise of utopia.

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 marvelous 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.

Let me start out by saying that I was kind of intimidated by the length of this audiobook, but I was overwhelmingly tempted by the amazing sounding premise and the multiple narrators (including B.D. Wong). However, it just wasn’t as enjoyable as I had hoped that it would be.

It’s broken into three different sections, each only vaguely connected. I got the impression that each group of characters might have even been related to those in the other sections, although this could be due to the repeating names of the characters, which appeared in some configuration in each section. All of the sections also dealt with similar themes — love, loss, class, longing, fear, sickness, family, and the changing state of the nation. It was intriguing to see how much things change in a hundred years.

The characters are well-created, and interesting. I had no issue bonding with them and getting fully invested in their lives. The way that history was reimagined as what parts of the United States could have been like if gay marriage was lawful in the 19th century was such a creative idea, and I enjoyed reading this alternate version of history. It sounded like such a utopia, especially compared to the dystopian version of the future. And that future? The beginning of it sounded uncomfortably close to what our society is like currently. Maybe it was a little too close for comfort, with the way certain sections of our own society view the current pandemic situation and the efforts to curtail it. Reading something like this before COVID-19 probably would have evoked different feelings in me, but reading it now just hits differently. Because I could absolutely see something like this occurring. And it’s terrifying.

One of my major issues with the story was that it inevitably cut off at what I felt was the most interesting part, at least for the first and third sections. The middle section was fine the way it was, providing a better sense of closure, but the other two left off just where it was getting good. Unfortunately, all of these different stories never felt connected, and it was almost as if three different books were just smashed into one large mega-book, using the same names as a weak link to connect them.

My biggest disappointment came at the very end of the book. After listening to nearly 29 hours of a story, I was horrified to realize that the ending provided absolutely no closure. It’s an open-ended story, but honestly? All I wanted was for things to be tied up in a neat little bow. It felt far too much like a cliffhanger for me, and while I normally can unwillingly manage this in a series, it’s unbearable in a standalone. 

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