“To Paradise” – Hanya Yanagihara

For the fans of the author’s “A Little Life” (I sure was one of them 🙋🏻‍♀️) the waiting finally had an end on the 11th of January 2022, when a new long awaited book of hers was released – “To Paradise”. I instantly started reading it once I picked up a copy at my local English bookshop in Paris and let me tell you… I don’t remember the last time that I read a book this thick (that was probably “A Little Life” actually 🤔) and this quickly!!! One of the most important reasons why I read all the 700 pages in just 2 weeks was because of Hanya’s insanely beautiful writing.

A warning straight ahead for all the die-hard “A Little Life” fans – this book is VERY different. I was incredibly glad about that since it really showed the versatility of the author’s writing but just be prepared that it won’t be anything like another story about Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm. This time around the focus is pretty much entirely on homosexual relationships though.

The book is divided into 3 stories, based in 3 different eras, the thing that they have in common being mostly based within New York, or a fictitious version of it. The 3 years where the stories takes place are:

  • 1893, making up a quarter of the book,
  • 1993, another quarter of the book as well and
  • 2093, making up the final half of the book.

The 3 stories are all linked to each other and that’s the fun part about the reading experience – trying to find out how exactly. It does present itself as a challenge at times. I myself had to draw out multiple character maps to understand who was who. The same names kept coming back in the 3 different stories and there were times when a lot of characters were introduced at once. You do have to stay attentive while trying to put all the puzzle pieces together and that’s something I really enjoyed. Luckily, you do get a little hint towards the end why certain names were reused so many times.

The different character maps I sketched out while reading

With each era, different themes are introduced and discussed. The topics ranged from:

  • thoughts on race, gender and the inequalities linked to them;
  • different social statuses;
  • the need for a belonging to a certain something – history, traditions or simply a country;
  • privilege in its different variations and how it can’t always contribute to ultimate happiness:

He felt at times as if his life were something he was only waiting to use up, so that, at the end of each day, he would settle into bed with a sigh, knowing he had worked through a small bit more of his existence and had moved another centimeter toward its natural conclusion.

p. 11
  • parenthood, as well as family relations and obligations, the balancing act of raising a child, choosing your child to either be happy or safe, even the debate of whether it’s worth having children:

How did having a child guarantee anything? What if your child didn’t like you? What if your child didn’t care about you? What if your child became a terrible adult, an association you were ashamed of? Then what? A person was the worst legacy, because a person was by definition unpredictable.

p. 228
  • love and relationships, being hurt and disappointed, being in relationships with wide age gaps:

“Age is just a number,” one of his more vapid friends had said, trying to be nice, but he was wrong – age was a different continent, and as long as he was with Charles, he would be moored there.

p. 214
  • friendships and the essence of them, the different degrees of their existence;
  • sickness and health, touching upon the topic of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s;
  • youth and aging;
  • to imaging the future of our world. It was so plausible in its ideas that it really gave you a taste of what life on planet Earth might soon be like. From cooling suits, trying to cope with the climate change, to parts of the world becoming completely uninhabitable and of course, the debate on how to feed all the human beings living on this globe. And yes, the biggest part of it focused on what pandemics will be like in the future – from global lockdowns, never being able to say for sure where these new diseases come from, to isolation camps and travel restrictions. You will find our current 2022 reality reimagined there:

You heard rumors about the Farm: that they were breeding new kinds of animals there – cows with two sets of udders, to produce double the amount of milk; brainless, legless chickens that could be packed, fat and square, into cages and would be fed by tubes; sheep that had been engineered to eat only waste, so that you wouldn’t have to use land and resources to grow grass.

p. 376

This gives the book tons of opportunities to touch upon such a wide variety of ideas, so that it really gets you thinking and reflecting on all these subjects. I on my side, was highlighting away, passage after passage, especially within the second story of the book. There were so many phrases, sentences and paragraphs that I absolutely adored, that I can’t even put them all in writing here.

The style of the writing varies within each of the 3 stories. I was a bit confused at first, and actually even scared, whether the entire book would be written in an “old-fashioned” kind of way. My comment on it in the beginning was that it read like nothing more than a simple love story in a LGBTQ+ variation of something Jane-Austen-like. But luckily no, that was just the way it was fittingly chosen for the part taking place in 1893. It nevertheless took quite long to get into the story, about 100 pages to be exact 🙈 That and another little point, where the pacing towards the very end of the book felt a bit off, was why I finally decided to reduce the rating by 1 ★. By the end of the third story it almost seemed like it was forced to be wrapped up quicker, to not make the book even longer. This resulted in some situations being a bit less believable that the rest that was described before.

What was great from the very beginning on though, is how vivid and detailed the descriptions of the settings were, so that you could instantly paint a picture of them in your imagination. Once you got the hang of who all the characters were, you did really get attached to them, not wanting the part of the book to end that they were in.

What else I loved about the book were the jumps in time in the storytelling, showing you snippets of the future of the characters. I think this is what essentially made the 700 pages fly by. The little plot twists that you got from time to time, for example when you were so used to all the homosexual characters that you started imagining them everywhere and suddenly were taken completely by surprise. But most of all, the book touched me on various emotional levels. It wasn’t something like “A Little Life” that swallowed you whole and threw you into a deep and inevitable darkness. The emotional strings that were pulled, were much more subtle here and I did tear up over a couple of different passages.

I would suggest you the book if you are a fan of an intricate style of writing, well developed characters, intertwining storylines and you’ve got a bit of time on your hands 🤭 I do think that you should be ready to put in some longer reading sessions, to be able to remember the details, linking the different stories within the book together. All in all, I was really hesitating between the rating of 4/5 or 5/5★, so this was a really close one. In any case, I have discovered the versatility of Hanya Yanagihara’s writing and I can’t wait to read her first novel, “The People in the Trees”, very soon!

“To Paradise” – Hanya Yanagihara

★★★★☆ (4/5)

Edition: ISBN 978-617-760-605-4
Picador, 2022

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