With admirable narrative range (and a lavish helping of the epistolary), Hanya Yanagihara returns the concept of the United States to the drawing board. Clocking in at over 700 pages, To Paradise is Yanagihara’s first novel since the runaway bestseller A Little Life (2015), and it’s both a dystopian departure from and an extension of her previous themes. The heavily scaffolded narrative is told in three sections, spanning 1893 to 2093, and it’s set in historically reimagined New York City and Hawaii—both places the author has called home.
To Paradise begins in Washington Square in an alternate 1893, in which New York is part of the Free States, separate from the rest of the U.S. Here sits the ancestral home of David Bingham, favored grandson of a banking magnate. David is suffocated by the pressures of his station, and also by his desire for the protection that his station affords.
Flash forward 100 years, and disenfranchised Hawaiian prince Kawika is living in this same house with his much older boyfriend during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Jump ahead another century to 2093, and pandemic survivor Charlie lives in the house, which is now government co-opted, with her husband by arranged marriage.
Time and again, Yanagihara’s characters must decide whether it is preferable to buy into someone else’s way of thinking—whether it be a friend’s, a lover’s or a government’s—or face their own reality. The threshold for self-debasement and humiliation is high here, and it is on this subject that Yanagihara writes most compellingly (albeit disturbingly). Her characters engage with battles for civil rights, grapple with disabilities, confront the social freedoms and limitations surrounding homosexuality across centuries, and live on a rapidly warming planet under a totalitarian regime. Topically this is a lot to juggle, and nuance is a casualty of scope in this novel.
Yanagihara’s imagined American reality prods readers to consider the one we find ourselves stuck with now. To Paradise feasts grimly on the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is not an anomaly, Yanagihara reminds us, but a blip in an increasingly illness-ridden world. If we redrew borders and rewrote laws, the novel asks—if intentions were mostly good—would the U.S. be any better off now?