Several years after the release of her surprise bestseller, A Little Life, author Hanya Yanagihara returns with a doorstopper entitled To Paradise. Part historical fiction, part science fiction, her latest is a triptych story set in 1893, 1993, and 2093, featuring countless characters across time and space. In her most ambitious work yet, Yanagihara delivers an emotional literary masterpiece: personal and epic, original and familiar.
The first part of the book introduces us to David Bingham, a scion of one of the most influential families in alternate New York. New York is part of the Free States, a group of states separate from the rest and with certain freedoms afforded to its citizens. One such freedom is the right to marry anyone you love, regardless of gender. Or so it seems. To preserve their wealth within a small circle, arranged marriage — especially among the rich — remains an acceptable practice in the Free States. The Bingham patriarch and David’s grandfather brokered a marriage between him and a respectable man. But just as David is learning to like his future partner, he met a charming and confident music teacher — and for the first time in his life, felt the joys and pains of love.
Amidst an unnamed epidemic in New York, (a different) David Bingham lives with his partner Charles. In New York, David is an unassuming man troubled by his past. In Hawaii, David is royalty and an heir to the throne. Recounting his childhood, we meet three people who shaped his broken selfhood and his fragmented idea of nationhood: his headstrong grandmother, his timid father, and his rebellious friend.
In a future ripped apart by pandemics, Charles or Charlie (yes, a different one) works as a lab assistant and lives with her husband in totalitarian New York. Interspersed with her narrative is a series of letters from Charlie’s scientist grandfather. The third book offers an intimate look at the destruction of a family in a authoritative regime that feels current but also futuristic.
The Personal is Social, The Personal is Political
The idea of To Paradise started after the publication of A Little Life, which makes her stories prescient. And prescience is borne out of intense self and social reflection.
There is an aggressive juxtaposition of selfhood and nationhood throughout the three stories. The first romantic heartbreak of David is also about realizing the hypocrisy of the Free States. The broken selfhood of (the other) David is parallel to the fragmented nationhood of Hawaii. The love of Charlie’s grandfather for her brought about a totalitarian state where his dear granddaughter lives.
Yanagihara underscored the ideas and concepts of nationhood through her characters: the progress and the stagnation, the rapture and regret, the beginning and the end of a nation. She dives deep into the idea of the United States as a nation that prides in freedom but institutionalizes discrimination, as a nation that grants statehood to Hawaii but mistreats its indigenous people, and as a nation that could devolve into totalitarianism with the gentlest of social change.
In Search of Paradise
Whilst the larger picture is nationhood, loneliness is the pellucid thread that runs through the pages of To Paradise. The characters suffer from desolation, desertion, and desperation. More than the pandemic, loneliness is the debilitating disease that infects the characters.
Yet loneliness is also the spark that leads them to the search for paradise.
A character rouses from stupor, develops personal courage, and takes the first step to romance or reunion or freedom in each story. No one knows if the pilgrimage to paradise is successful because that is not the point. The point is to understand the source of loneliness and to find happiness. The title itself is the clue: it’s ‘to paradise’ and not ‘the paradise.’
Yanagihara releases To Paradise to colossal expectations; comparisons to her previous international bestseller are inevitable. Nevertheless, her latest offering is different from her previous works. To Paradise is a massive undertaking and a brilliant demonstration of her skill, talent, and ambition. One that requires, like her characters, fearlessness in the face of personal and social change.