I was roughly three-quarters of the way through Hanya Yanagihara’s massive third novel, To Paradise, when I felt like I could go on no longer. I wasn’t traumatized by the many scenes of suffering, nor was I bothered by the prose, which is energetic and polished, if at times overladen with simile. I was, however, extremely bored.
To Paradise—the follow-up to Yanagihara’s best-selling 2015 novel, A Little Life—is an epic told in three parts, each set in and around New York City’s Washington Square. Book One takes place in the late 19th century, reimagined by Yanagihara as a kind of progressive Gilded Age. In this alternate version of history, New York is not part of the United States but rather of the “Free States,” a small, independent nation in which gay marriage is legal.
The second book zips ahead 100 years, to a New York City that seems almost indistinguishable from the one we know. (AIDS is a plague, and rent downtown remains cheap.) But flashbacks to the 1970s, which present an alternate history of Hawaii, suggest that we’re still in a fictional version of the past. Book Three, the most fully realized section of the novel, presents us with a future marked by plague, climate change, and authoritarianism.
These disparate narratives are linked by shared names—there are five David Binghams, four Charles Griffins, three Edward Bishops—and common themes: migration, arranged marriage, homophobia, inadequate parenting, the bonds of friendship, and the promise of Utopia. To Paradise is Yanagihara’s most ambitious novel to date and, to my mind, her least successful.
To Paradise begins promisingly enough. The wealthy David Bingham, still smarting from a failed love affair, is encouraged by his grandfather to marry Charles Griffin, a compassionate, if dull, businessman from Massachusetts. But David has fallen in love with Edward Bishop: a poor music teacher, slick, charismatic, and, quite possibly, a con man. David must choose whether to honor his grandfather and marry Charles or flee to the West with Edward, whom he (mostly) loves and trusts. This section of the novel was absorbing—love triangles always are—and, in its better moments, it reminded me of the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton.
Unfortunately, Yanagihara abruptly cuts off this story and begins a weaker one. A century later, another David Bingham—this one the supposed descendant of Hawaiian royalty—is dating another Charles Griffin. David is a paralegal, Charles a partner at the law firm. Much of this section describes a dinner party that Charles hosts for his friend Peter, who is dying from cancer. (The party gives Yanagihara an opportunity to describe the dining habits of the very rich, seemingly one of her favorite activities.)
We’re given to understand that David is on bad terms with his father (yet another David), and a long letter from David père explains why: the elder David spent years in thrall to his friend Edward and engaging in Hawaiian-separatist activities that imperiled his health as well as his relationship with his son. Try as I might, I could not bring myself to care about this father-son conflict: both Davids are too pathetic and good-hearted to inspire either interest or ill will. I almost missed the abusive monks of A Little Life—true villains, who elicit both fascination and horror.
Book Three is likely to generate the most critical commentary. It traces the nation’s future descent into Fascism and presents this political development as the logical consequence of pandemic-protection measures. Beginning in 2035, the characters explain, outbreaks of plague occurred roughly every five years. By the 2090s, food has been rationed, books banned, housing requisitioned and subdivided, the ill and the dissident forcibly sterilized—all in the name of public health.
To Paradise is Yanagihara’s most ambitious novel to date and, to my mind, her least successful.
Unlike many writers of dystopian fiction, Yanagihara is not primarily concerned with freedoms lost or stifled but rather with the effect authoritarianism has on friendship. As in A Little Life, friendship has a hallowed status in To Paradise: one’s family of origin may disappoint, but one’s chosen family can be sustaining.
In this imagined authoritarian state, however, marriage and blood ties are privileged, while other forms of kinship are precluded. In a scene that serves as a pointed contrast to Charles’s dinner party for the dying Peter, a rich gay couple leave a sick friend of theirs to die outdoors during one of the future plagues rather than letting him stay in their pool house. “How dare he make us say no to him,” one of the men remembers thinking. “A friend was helpless and afraid, and that is how we reacted.”
It’s a well-executed scene, and it’s matched by a different scene of devastation in which another Charles—this one a scientist and the architect of the controversial quarantine camps—discovers twin boys starved to death in their home. Yanagihara’s writing is always most lush and lively when she’s representing physical and emotional suffering: an overflowing recycling bin in the twins’ home is described, chillingly, as a “parodic cornucopia.”
It’s too bad, then, that she’s interleaved so many hollow scenes of love and tenderness, as if responding to critics who found her prior two novels too dark. As New York descends into viral hell, parents try to save their children, and children try to save their parents. Heads are stroked; hands are held; bedside vigils are kept. When the scientist Charles is executed by the state, he calls out for his granddaughter, Charlie, using a pet name: “I love you, little cat, never forget that. No matter what.”
This is lazy sentimentality, and I don’t think Yanagihara’s heart is really in it. Her writing is flat and predictable when she’s writing about parental sacrifice and enduring familial love, which are not her usual themes. Her dystopia bored me not because of the repeated plagues, or the many minute details of life under Fascism, but because there were far too many empty professions of love, too many moments in which the human spirit could be said to endure.
The novel ends on a discordantly hopeful note, as scientist Charles imagines, in a letter, his granddaughter’s escape to safety, and himself, reincarnated as a vulture, flying across the Atlantic. There were many things I disliked about this final passage: the nostalgic tone, the excessive adjectives (wings are first “rubbery” then “ribbed”), the parade of nouns that conclude the final sentence—“loves,” “freedom,” “safety,” “dignity”—and that present, far too directly, the novel’s values.
But there was one thing I did like: the words “to paradise,” which conclude each of the three books, because their appearance signaled that the novel was over.
Maggie Doherty is a writer and book critic, and the author of The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s