My disappointment is immeasurable, and my day is ruined.
If you’ve read my review for A Little Life you know how much that novel means to me. Just looking at my hardback copy makes me feel all sorts of intense feelings. So, naturally, my expectations were high for To Paradise. At first, the Cloud Atlas-esque premise did intrigue me. To Paradise is a door-stopper of a book that is divided into three ‘books’. These ‘books’ are united by their shared setting (New York) and themes (freedom, illness, identity, privilege, familial and romantic love, notions of utopia, familial duty vs self, betrayal, desire). On paper, this sounded amazing, and I was looking forward to being once again swept away by Yanagihara’s storytelling…except that it never quite happened.
“Each of them wanted the other to exist only as he was currently experiencing him as if they were both too unimaginative to contemplate each other in a different way.”
The first two books did hold my attention and I even felt emotionally invested in the characters (even if they did pale in comparison to the characters populating A Little Life).
Book I takes place in an alternate America in 1893 where New York is part of the Free States where same-sex couples can marry unlike in the Colonies (ie other US states) and gender equality prevails. The story follows David Bingham who lives with his grandfather on Washington Square. The Binghams are a distinguished and wealthy family and David is accustomed to a life of privilege. While his siblings have married and gone on to have families of their own and/or successful careers, David leads a quiet and sedentary life, keeping himself to himself and mostly interacting with his grandfather. One day a week David teaches art in an orphanage/school and it is here that he comes across the new music teacher, Edward Bishop. David falls fast and hard for Edward in spite of his possible arranged union to Charles Griffith, an older gentleman who his grandfather approves of. David knows that his family would never approve of penniless Edward who has little to no social standing. The two nevertheless become romantically involved and David struggles to keep his dalliance a secret. While he does become more aware of the limitations many citizens of the so-called Free States experience, his naive nature remains relatively unchanged. Readers are made aware that this alternate New York is far from idyllic as class and race play a major role in one’s quality of life. David himself, who is white, expresses prejudiced opinions about POC, and, until Edward, was quite unaware of the realities of having to work for one’s living. Over the course of this section characters or the narrative itself will allude to David’s illness, but Yanagihara refrains from delving into specifics. We see what others think of David’s fragility and solitary lifestyle, and the shame that David himself feels because of his illness. The story, like the following ones, has a very slow pacing. Here it kind of works as we are able to grow accustomed to this alternate America and to the various characters, David in particular. The tension of this story is very much created by David’s hidden relationship with Edward. Various events force David to question whether Edward is genuinely in love with him or whether he’s being played like Millie in Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove. The melancholic setting is well-rendered and perfectly complemented Yanagihara’s formal yet piercing prose. Nevertheless, overall I was able to appreciate this section, even if the ending is somewhat abrupt and left me longing for a clearer resolution/conclusion. For some reason, I thought that the later sections would fill in the gaps left by this 1st tale but I’m afraid they did not. Also, I wish that the author could have envisioned an alternate past without racial discrimination, or at least, that she could have then dedicated more than a throwaway lines on the issue.
The second section is set in 1993 during the AIDS epidemic. David Bingham, a young Hawaiian man, is a paralegal who becomes involved with one of his firm’s senior partners, Charles. Charles is much older and wealthier than David and this often creates friction in their relationship. Charles’ friends, who, like him are white and older than David, do little to include David, often making jabs at his expenses or insinuating that he’s only after Charles’ money. The power dynamic between Charles and David is decidedly skewed. We also learn of David’s parentage and of the weight he carries because of it. There is quite a lot of ambiguity surrounding his difficult relationship with his father who suffers from an undisclosed illness. The AIDS epidemic also forces David to reconcile himself with his own mortality and the failings of the human body. The drama unfolding between David and Charles was compelling. They have led drastically different lives and move in very different circles. David struggles to adapt to Charles’ lifestyle and no matter how hard he tries he feels alienated from Charles’ set. Throughout the course of book II there are some beautiful meditations on life, death, and love that certainly struck a chord with me. Alas, book II is divided into two parts and only the first one follows David (who is the most likeable David of the lot). Part II is structured as a letter/confession of sorts penned by David’s father. Here we move to Hawaii and we learn more about David’s complicated family history and the eventual dissolution of his family.
Book III, which begins around the 50% mark, is what ruined this book for me. It was a mess. It’s 2093 and the world is apparently beset with plagues. We switch to a 1st person narration and our protagonist is living in this generically dystopian New York that is divided into various Zones, some of which have more access to water and food resources. In a move that screams YA dystopia, our female narrator comes across a mysterious man who is dangerously critical of the government. Interspersed throughout her chapters are letters written by her grandfather to one of his closest friends. They provide a blow-by-blow account of the years leading to this dystopian and totalitarian New York and the crucial role he played in it. This part was boring to the extreme. I found that the author’s old-fashioned prose, which really suited Book I & even Book II to be at odds with her dystopian setting. There is also an attempt at mystery by not using the characters’ names (the narrator refers to her grandfather as grandfather and her husband as my husband and this mysterious man as ‘you’). I had no interest in anything that was being said. There were a lot of pandemics, illnesses, plagues, some science lite and I could not bring myself to care for any of it. I kept reading hoping that this Book III would be the bow that ties all of these books together but it never did. We once again have characters sharing the same names but once again the dynamics are slightly different. They do not share the same personality traits as their earlier ‘incarnations’ which left me wondering why did they even have to have the same names to begin with. At one point in Book II David goes on about ‘what ifs’ and parallel universes when thinking about his relationship with Charles.
But that was more or less it. Why do we get the same characters but not really? The many Davids (spoiler: there is more than 3) populating these stories have little in common. They are all male and feel things (to different degrees i might add). Other than that, I didn’t really believe that they were reincarnations of the same David (a la Cloud Atlas). While I was at least able to appreciate the author’s storytelling and themes in the first two books, the last one spoiled things big time. I had to skim read it (something i am not fond of doing). It was a lifeless and unconvincing story narrated by a one-dimensional narrator who sounds like the classic dystopian heroine who has been indoctrinated by whatever evil government. The dystopian setting is stagy, characterised by tired tropes and severely lacking in depth.
I’ll be honest, I did not get the point of this book. Even if I did find book I & II compelling enough, those stories feel ultimately unresolved and lack direction. Book III was a flop.
A Little Life was a tour de force that left me equal parts awestruck and heartbroken. The characters felt real and so did their individual stories. To Paradise instead never fully convinced me. Even the first two books at times came across as affected. And while the themes the author explores in To Paradise have potential, well, she did a much better job with them in A Little Life. Here, both the characters and the relationships they have to one another, well, they are miles behind the ones from A Little Life. Even the ‘earlier’ Davids struck me as relatively bland and forgettable. The supposed love they feel for their families or partners, it didn’t always ring true to life.
If you are interested in this novel I encourage you check out more positive reviews. Maybe I’m just not the right reader for this type of
supposedly interconnected narratives…
my rating: ★★★☆☆
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edit: it appears that my opening line has been quoted in an article on the new yorker. i would have not minded if the writer of that article had not proceeded to imply that i did not give Yanighara the ‘benefit of the doubt’. mate, maybe next time don’t just quote the first line of my review, especially given that it was a meme, and take time to read my review. i mean, aren’t you supposed to be a ‘professional’? 1) i went quite in depth in regards to the reasons why this book did not ‘work’ for me, i didn’t just write: tHis SUckS, iT iSN’t LiKE A liTtLe LiFE, 2) i did not dnf this, i may have skim-read the last hundred pages i did read it, so to say that i did not give her the benefit of the doubt is, if you’ll excuse my language, fucking bullshit.
Amazing review. I really appreciate your honesty. I also loved Yanagihara’s A Little Life and am obviously anticipating this one. It’s a pity to hear that the first two books lack certain resolution and the third is a “flop”. I have been worried about this novel actually because reading the synopsis it just sounded overly-ambitious for Yanagihara to pull it off, even if she is one of the better writers living today. I worried about the chapters focusing on the distant future, in particular. Even Kazuo Ishiguro would have struggled with this, I think, and in Never Let Me Go focused mainly on relations between the characters. It’s tricky and I am sure no author can produce her or his best all the time.