'To Paradise' packs a staggering amount into its alternate histories
Hanya Yanagihara's To Paradise defies categorization.
At once a novel that reimagines the world three times and a collection of barely interconnected novels about different people in some of the same places, the book deals with themes like LGBTQ+ relationships in different times and contexts, racism, pandemics, loss, unrequited love, and family.
However, these things are all wrapped in 720 pages of small details, loose ends, and narratives within narratives that ultimately make the novel feel like a bit too much.
To Paradise contains three novels. The first one takes place in 1893 in an alternate America and follows David, a rich young man from a well-known family who lives in the shadow of his grandfather while dreaming of finding freedom and making his own path in life. He struggles with a prearranged marriage and instead falls in love with a mysterious piano player who lives in a dilapidated apartment — and may or may not be planning to steal his fortune. The second novel takes place in Manhattan in 1993, where a young paralegal tries to hide his past from his much older and very wealthy partner as the AIDS pandemic rages on. The last novel — a somewhat dystopian narrative where there is a totalitarian government and the world is in shambles due to various plagues — takes place at various times between 2088 and 2094, also in New York, and follows the granddaughter of a scientist as she learns to cope with the loss of her grandfather and tries to get to the bottom of her husband's disappearance.
There are a plethora of topics Yanagihara circles back to a few times in these three narratives. Unrequited love, insecurity, relationship drama, secret pasts, and identity are a few of them. She also revisits places like Washington Square and some Manhattan streets. Along with the topics mentioned above, these places and some of the names she uses time and again give To Paradise a hint of cohesion. The most prominent of these elements, however, is LGBTQ+ relationships. Especially in the first two stories, gay marriage is mostly accepted, but there are places in which it's frowned upon or even punished.
Similarly, there are various instances in which racism shows up and it's shown as something vile, but Yanagihara never delves deep into it and the critiques are superficial. For example, there's a passage in the second narrative in which a homeless man screams a series of racial and anti-LGBTQ+ slurs at the protagonist, but it's not followed by an exploration of his feelings about it.
Despite the elements of cohesion mentioned above, To Paradise is a disjointed read in which narrative threads are dropped never to be retaken again. For example, in the first story there are many pages dedicated to the death of a young boy and how the tragedy affected the man David is supposed to marry. Then, that story stops and we never learn any more about the boy's family or the aftermath of his death. Also, the language used in this first story, which sets the tone for the rest of the book, is confusing as it goes from sounding modern and using "twenty-nine years" to using "nine-and-twenty years" and words like "flibbertigibbet." There are echoes that reverberate in each book, places and situations that tempt readers to try to connect the dots and find some overarching idea enveloping the three stories, but that exercise will only lead to frustration because there will be many more questions than answers.
To Paradise operates on two levels, and they share equal weight. On one hand, the book offers a series of alternate histories in which some of the problems we face today show up, and characters struggle to find their true selves. In fact, the pandemics that appear in the novel make this one of the first big pandemic novels, although the pandemics and illnesses themselves don't play a major role in the novel. On the other hand, there is too much going on but enough of it is explored deeply. This is a story about love versus wealth, but also about inner demons, troubled pasts, heartbreak, racism, and too many other things to name.
To Paradise packs a staggering amount of characters, events, letters, and narratives within narratives that never coalesce into something that feels like more than the sum of its parts. However, it also features interesting ideas, like the fact that sex between partners before marriage is "encouraged" or that things like anxiety and uncertainty timeless elements of human nature. Yanagihara crammed three centuries of imagination into this novel, and that is undoubtedly an achievement. She also managed to put human emotions at the center of every narrative, and that grants To Paradise emotional resonance. However, the onslaught of details and stories ultimately muddle the narrative in a way that injects a healthy dose of bewilderment and frustration into what could have been an outstanding reading experience.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.
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