‘To Paradise’ takes readers to, well, paradise

The cover of Hanya Yanagihara's third novel, "To Paradise," featuring a young man on a black background.
Hanya Yanagihara’s latest novel, a follow-up to 2015’s critically acclaimed and cult-followed “A Little Life,” polarized critics and readers. (Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House)

Few authors possess a gift for storytelling like Hanya Yanagihara — her writing ranges in multitudes, flowing with a lyricism that can coddle your heart in its palm one second and mutilate it within its grip the next. In other words, her novels are an emotional rollercoaster not for the faint of heart nor literary adrenaline celibates.   

It sounds melodramatic, but reading is believing in the case of a Yanagihara novel. Her debut novel and anthropological testament “The People in the Trees” introduced her as a magazine editor and author who does not shy away from experimental story structure. She crafted the novel like a pseudo-memoir, unreliably narrated by a scientist who discovers an anti-aging elixir on a remote island and consequently instigates the West’s colonization of its Indigenous community. 

Yanagihara’s third novel, “To Paradise,” released last month to widespread anticipation. Like her debut novel, “To Paradise” reiterates themes such as colonialism and an unconventional story structure, with three different novellas composing one book. However, the novel holds its own as a poignant, incomparable Yanagihara novel.  

“To Paradise” takes the reader through three generations of America, spanning from a parallel dimensional 19th century to the 20th century at the height of the AIDS epidemic to a dystopian 21st century ridden by rapidly evolving viruses. Themes of class, race, longing, disability and intergenerational relations lace them together, along with reincarnations of main characters in each of the three stories. 

In its first story, “Washington Square,” Yanagihara imagines an alternate post-Civil War America with normalized homosexuality and arranged marriages. The protagonist, David, grapples with his suffocating family legacy and finding a suitable husband in New York, or the “Free States.” When his grandfather finally arranges a marriage for him, he simultaneously meets and falls in love with a less wealthy man. 

David then finds himself face-to-face with a rather seen-it-before qualm: Does he settle for the older, renowned Massachusetts farmer, or does he risk his family’s reputation for his star-crossed lover? Although it promotes a romance trope on its surface, Yanagihara laces perplexity into it: paradise is subjective, and achieving it is not as simple as “following one’s destiny,” but instead involves waging sacrifices and one’s moral compass.  

The middle story, “Lipo-Wao-Nahele,” fast forwards to the pinnacle of America’s AIDS epidemic. Our protagonist, David, shifts to a young, New York transplant from Hawaii. The novella’s first half chronicles his coming to terms with his partner and his community of older, gay men diagnosed with HIV and AIDS.

The second half chronicles a letter from David’s father who recounts their tormented relationship on a plantation in Hawaii and what ultimately drove them apart. Ultimately, the novella revisits this idea of subjective freedom and how it can bring people together — or tear them apart. 

The concluding and longest story, “Zone Eight,” depicts a dystopian America in 2093, half a century after a flurry of viruses swept across the nation and decimated its population. At first glance, the reader may think “Not another story about a pandemic, have we not had enough?” 

However, Yanagihara positions the epidemics as a backdrop against a story of our new David’s coming of age, his turmoil with his fathers, his involvement in an insurgency and the birth of his daughter. In a parallel storyline 20 years later, his daughter navigates the totalitarian society with a disability after nearly dying from one of the viruses as a baby. A stunning conclusion to a monstrosity of a novel, “Zone Eight” leaves readers struggling with an existential question: Is paradise even feasible after all?  

After its release, however, the novel polarized critics and readers — many commending the novel for its daring concept matter and others panning it for its incoherence and as a lackluster follow-up to “A Little Life,” a 2015 National Book Awards finalist. 

The two novels maintain significant similarities — they both portray Yanagihara’s masterful control of her prose and unreal understanding of the human condition, which allows her to construct a psychological realism so vivid that the reader finds themselves losing track of time while wandering through its characters’ psyches. In “To Paradise,” the emotional investment that drove readers in “A Little Life” persists.  

But they also contain their differences. “A Little Life” borders a 21st-century Shakespearean tragedy on steroids. Its artistry was not only a surreal task for Yanagihara to execute, but also a near-impossible art for the reader to enjoy unless they could handle insanely triggering topics, such as physical, verbal and sexual assault, suicide and self-harm. On the other hand, “To Paradise” shines in a new light through a less traumatic, more idiosyncratic lens, which readers should not hesitate trying on for size.   

We can appreciate another addition to Yanagihara’s transcendent collection, but we must not pit her rarities — standalone masterpieces in and of themselves — against each other. “To Paradise” is far from lackluster; instead, it is a triumph of literature that, despite challenging our concept of freedom, certainly succeeds in taking readers to its own literary paradise.