Title: To Paradise
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Genre: Literary Fiction
To Paradise isn’t A Little Life. It will not break your heart. It will not make you cry. It will not torment you days after you finish it. It will not haunt you or your memories. It is not that kind of a book. But what it is – for its writing, multiple plots, characters that are engaging and well-fleshed out, it is about family and relationships and how we are forever stuck or not with them, it is about inheritance, and passion, love and lack of it, and more so about Hawai’i.
It is not The People in the Trees, yet there is enough science for people who loved that one. It isn’t what you think it is – even though the blurb is given, and you think you know what this book is about, but you do not. To Paradise is nothing like I have read this year, and this is what I expect of Yanagihara.
To Paradise is divided into three parts and each part feels like a different novel. I failed to see the larger connect and that to me is alright, because I will reread it and see where I missed out. The first story is set in an alternate version of 1893 America, New York is a part of the Free States where anyone can do what they please, love and marry whoever they want – it all seems very idyllic. The nubile and young scion of a very distinguished family David is smitten by a music teacher Edward, who has nothing to show for, when he is almost betrothed to a wealthy suitor Charles, way older than him and perhaps incapable of understanding him. Yanagihara’s characters take time to grow and for readers to even get to know them. It is almost a slow-burn of a novel in that sense.
The second part of the novel plays out in 1993 Manhattan with the AIDS epidemic taking more lives by the minute. This part of the novel looks at the relationship of a son and father, both Davids this time. The son, David is living with his older and richer lover Charles and the father is combating a serious illness, contemplating on life – past and present through a series of monologues. This by far was my favourite section of the novel. Yanagihara writes prose like no other. Even though like I said this book isn’t traumatic, it has its moments of melancholy, grief, and loss.
The last part of the novel is set in a not-so-distant future where pandemics are a common thing and charts the relationship between a grandfather, Charles and his granddaughter Charlie. This is the part where science (as it played out beautifully in The People in the Trees) comes to fore along with questions of identity, climate change, and uncertainty.
The themes of the book are so large and interconnected that it makes you want to keep turning the pages. Love, loss, loneliness, the need for someone, shame, death and fear keep getting played out in several ways. The writing is taut and perfect. Not a beat is missed, and nothing is out of place. The book may seem chunky, but it is needed. Yanagihara works on details – this is the only way to get to know her characters and understand the world she creates.
To Paradise left me stumped as well in a lot of places – there are a lot of questions unanswered, too many loose ends that weren’t tied, too much left for assumption, but it is alright. I think some books are meant to be that way. I will most certainly reread it when it is officially out in January.