I have this memory of reading Infinite Jest in one week at the cottage. And memories of scoffing at people who took weeks to read a novel. Like, what, I thought, were they doing with their time? Well scoff no more because it took me all summer to read Hanya Yangagihara’s new novel, To Paradise. But I did. And you should, too.
Set in three distinct time periods – the late 19th century, the mid-20th and the near future of the 2060s – the novel grounds itself (not literally, but close to literally) in the setting of Washington Square park and the residents of a stately manor house on its edges. In these richly imagined sections of the book distinct characters with repeating (and for this memory fogged individual, sometimes confusing) names move through the house with recurring thematic questions explored through these unique yet layered temporalities.
Some of what the book focuses on is family – what kinds of responsibilities a parent owes a child, where parental and child autonomy start and end, and how freedom within a family is limited, found and exercised. Much of it is on how illness shapes a family. Written post-2020, and with the latter section of the novel (the 2060s section) written entirely from a frame of a post-pandemic, post-climate catastrophe state, the backdrop of Covid looms even while it is never explicitly named. The ways parents and children, partners and lovers, are asked and required to negotiate, to compromise, to mourn, and to sacrifice within the frame of contagion is… compelling and unsettling.
Yangagihara writes incredible characters. You’ll recall that I love A Little Life – so much so that I read and reviewed it twice – and what I loved in that novel – the exquisite imagining of the wholeness of characters – repeats here. Most reviews of To Paradise will tell you that the middle section, set in Hawai’i, drags a bit. And it does. But more because the plot is slow than the fault of fully imagined characters. Make it through that section and you are richly rewarded in the final third.
I suppose my only complaint is the unsettled questions at the end of each section. While I know the lack of answers is intentional, I do, I can’t help but remain frustrated that the responsibility for imagining the future falls to me. Of course there’s a thematic point in that formal quality, but still. Come on.
Thanks to my mum who urged this one on me and promised that I’d love it. I did.