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Book Review: To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

Cover of the book To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

I noticed recently that I haven’t read as many books as usual by this time of year. Then I realized that Almanac of the Dead and today’s book, To Paradise, felt like reading multiple books in one. This is especially true of To Paradise, which is comprised of three distinct stories that share a loose common bond. The book is divided into three parts, each of which could be a book on its own. The core setting remains the same: New York City, specifically, a large house in Washington Square, with each story set 100 years after the previous (1893, 1993, and 2093). The names of the characters also pass through each of these years, which creates an interesting set of questions for the reader: how is this David different from that David? How do I feel about this Charles, knowing what I know about the other ones? That age-old question of “what’s in a name” creates an undercurrent that swirls through the entire work without overwhelming it. 

Washington Square

Set in an alternate history version of New York City in 1893, the first segment of the book (“Washington Square”) focuses on 23-year-old David Bingham. Here, the Civil War did not end in a reunion of the Union, but rather additional splintering. The South remains ceded, reconstituted as “The United Colonies.” The northern-central/Midwestern part of the U.S. is now called “America” or “The American Union.” The West Coast is the Western Union, the Southwest (excluding Texas) is labeled on the map as simply “Uncharted Territory,” Maine is its own Republic, and the rest of the Northeast, including New York, make up “The Free States.” In the Free States, homosexuality is not only legal, but same-sex marriages are commonplace (and so are arranged marriages, complete with marriage brokers) and relatively unremarkable.

David lives in the Washington Square house with his grandfather, the only unmarried and aimless drifter of his siblings. While Free State society has a very open-minded view of homosexuality, it still maintains the usual biases against mental illness, class differences, and race. Free Staters pity Black people from the Colonies for the terrible plight in which they find themselves in the South and the affluent join aid societies aimed at helping them escape, but only to push them out to America or Canada or anywhere else. As a wealthy White man, destined to inherit even more from his famous banking scion grandfather, David is in a position of great respect and power, but his troubling “nervous issues” that occasionally send him into a catatonic state is a secret that needs to be covered as much as possible. 

David’s grandfather, Nathaniel, however, has found a suitable suitor for David, a gentleman from Massachusetts named Charles. A widower, Charles is a kind and dependable man, with a fortune of his own. But then a poor but beautiful and gifted music teacher named Edward catches David’s eye – and heart. Soon David finds himself in a common romantic dilemma: does he stay with the “safe” and practical choice expected of someone of his status or does he give it all up for romance and passion, despite potential red flags? What does it mean to be free? How will he get to paradise?


We leave David’s struggle over his future to jump to 1993, where another David Bingham is confronting his past. This David is a young paralegal in a relationship with one of the big-shot attorneys at the firm, named Charles. Charles is wealthy, living in the same Washington Square house, self-confident and assured. He handles everything, makes all the decisions, and wants David to just be with him and enjoy the comforts he can provide. David tells himself this is ideal, but under the surface, things feel off.

When we meet him, David is preparing for the huge dinner party Charles is throwing for a dying friend.  Death and illness seem to be everywhere, as a disease stalks gay men, striking silently and causing them to waste away. (While never named, it’s clear she’s talking about AIDS.) David observes how Charles’ friends have their own ways of dealing with this ever-present threat, including those who seem to have turned gluttonous, as though by gaining weight they could block the disease while simultaneously proving to everyone around them that they were not sick. 

But all of this suddenly takes second billing when David receives an unexpected letter from home.  David, we learn, is originally from Hawaii and through his father’s side, a direct descendant of Hawaiian royalty. If it hadn’t been for the colonization of Hawaii and the deposing of its queen back in 1898, David could very well have been preparing to take the throne, instead of living royally through his boyfriend.  Something fractured in his childhood, though, driving him to start another life on the other side of the continent. There was some sort of falling out between him and his father, a sickness of a kind that his father couldn’t overcome. 

This section is told in two different formats – one from David’s perspective in the present and his father’s perspective of his past through a letter. Through the letter, we learn of David’s father’s childhood, his meeting of the independence-focused Edward, his brief relationship with David’s mother, his love for David, and his inability to stand up for himself against those who would use him to push their own dreams of Hawaiian independence. Meanwhile, David must figure out if he is ok being swept along in Charles’ wake or if he is following the same path as his father. 

Zone Eight

The letter style continues in the third part of the book.  We begin in 2093 where we meet Charlie, granddaughter of a scientist/virologist also named Charles. Charlie grew up in the house on Washington Square with her grandfather, but only in a small apartment. The house has been divided up over the years and is only for married people. Charlie recently married, and her grandfather moved out, hoping he had done everything possible to protect her. New York is a much more dangerous and depressing place then it ever was in the previous centuries. 

As we learn in greater details through Charles’ letters, which begin in the 2040s, Earth is now continually plagued by pandemic after pandemic, despite scientists’ bests efforts to stay ahead. Some were more virulent than others – Charlie barely survived the pandemic of the 2070s that took so many children. The treatment that saved her life left her changed, erasing her original personality and causing her to struggle with human interactions. 

In addition to the waves of deadly illnesses, climate change has ravaged the planet as well. The government controls Central Park, and set up the Farm, where Charlie’s husband works, to try to genetically engineer plants and animals that could help increase the food supply and/or work as medicines. Nearly all civil rights are suspended – Charlie is left shaking and terrified each time their apartment is searched by authorities.  The internet is long gone – it was, as Charles explained in his letters, too big a source of disinformation that led to people dying. Mass crematoriums are set up on Roosevelt Island to keep up with the dead.  And yet, even with this large-scale horror show, Charlie continues with her daily life, using her ration book to get her allotments of food, wondering if her husband will ever love her, taking care of the embryonic rats at the lab. Despite the horror of everything, life moves along. Until it doesn’t.

Overall, I liked this book.  It was a bit confusing at first with all the names overlapping across the centuries, but I liked the implications of it. So much of this story revolves around questions of fate, destiny, free will, and the cumulative effects of our choices. Despite its length, it never felt long, perhaps helped by the fact that it has such discrete parts. And each part struck different chords in me. The Washington Square book recreates a sense of Victorian novels, diving into the world of the wealthy elite, the duty to one’s class, and the difficulties that can create for love.  Parts of Lipo-wao-nahele reminded me of And The Band Played On, a foundational work on the AIDS crisis, while the scenes from Hawai’i recalled Sharks in the Time of Saviors, by Kawai Strong Washburn, about a Hawai’ian family dealing with the pulls of tradition, family responsibility, and finding one’s own path. 

Zone Eight, though, simply reminded me of now.  While published in 2022, apparently Yanagihara wrote much of the Zone Eight section before 2020 and the outbreak of Covid.  She did her work though, spending a great deal of time researching viruses and pandemics, interviewing scientists and researchers and figuring out how things might play out with a new virus sweeping across the globe.  Regardless of when she wrote it, she captured so much of the tensions we currently face. 

Generally speaking, when I read dystopian novels, I quickly and easily side with those fighting their oppressors. It’s usually clear-cut, though things rarely are in real life. Charles’ letters force us to see how well-meaning choices can spiral out of control. At one point, Charles tells his family it’s understandable to sympathize with a mother who smuggled her sick child out of the hospital and took him back to her apartment building, where she desperately tried to get someone to help her. He then urged them to think about how many innocent people she exposed to a deadly disease, how many of her elderly neighbors and other children paid the price of her fear – were they not deserving of sympathy? What of the families they left behind? Having lived through this pandemic, those arguments don’t feel so theoretical. But where do the lines get drawn? 

Questions are the foundation of this book. Yanagihara isn’t going to provide answers. But perhaps it is the asking of questions that leads to paradise.  

Thoughts on To Paradise? Did you have a favorite of the three parts? How do you feel reading fictional accounts of plagues and pandemics these days? Leave a comment and start a discussion!

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