‘To Paradise’ review: ‘A Little Life’ author Hanya Yanagihara returns with elegant epic

Wayne Catan
| Special to USA TODAY


Hanya Yanagihara‘s new novel, the epic tome “To Paradise” (Doubleday, 720 pp., out of four, out Tuesday), is a re-imagination of New York City in 1893 and 1993, and a forecast of 2093, presented uniquely in three books with three different plot lines. Yanagihara (“A Little Life”) presents characters with similar names in three books. There are multiple Charles Griffiths and David Binghams. Adams is always a butler.

“Book I: Washington Square” opens in New York City in 1893, right after the Civil War, which Yanagihara calls the War of Rebellion. In language and setting, this section of the book recalls Edith Wharton and Henry James. It also features period artifacts such as the new Brooklyn Bridge, Washington Square Park, and hansoms that glide along the streets of Manhattan.

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The characters, many of them gay men, are divided into socioeconomic classes. The most respected bank in New York is run by Nathaniel Bingham, his grandfather. His grandchildren, including David Bingham, the youngest, were born to the same high-class family. Adams is their butler. David is enamored of Edward Bishop, a homeless musician. Grandfather Bingham encourages David to marry in his class. “I have an offer of marriage for your… A good family, the Griffiths of Nantucket. What is the age of the gentleman? One-and-40.” David could choose to please his grandfather and marry Charles or listen to his heart and follow Edward west.

“Book II: Lipo-Wao-Nahele,” set in New York in 1993, features another version of David Bingham, a paralegal who has Hawaiian royal blood running through his veins. David lives with Charles Griffith, an older lawyer. The plague that is ravaging the city is AIDS. However, it is not named. Yanagihara uses Charles’s death to set the tone for the saturnine novel.

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Yanagihara’s unparalleled storytelling skills shine in the dystopia of “Part III: Zone Eight,” which opens in 2093 near Washington Square Park. Several pandemics have spread through New York, and the city is divided into zones: Washington Square Park is located in Zone 8, Harlem falls in Zone 11 and Times Square is situated in Zone 9. New York’s denizens are under the control of a totalitarian regime. There is no TV, no movies, and no internet. You can’t spend your evening reading a novel or debating about an article.

Yanagihara creates a cloistered society in which human suffering, even the killing of infants, is a daily occurrence. Charlie, a laboratory tech, alternates with her scientist grandfather Dr. Charles Griffith who is “one of the architects” of the camps where the sick die. American scientists report to China their findings and diseases are created in laboratories. People eat horse meat and broiled rabbits, and bears roam free.

“To Paradise is a novel of the finest order. Yanagihara’s writing is elegant, conveying emotion and evoking believable characters that move the plot. Yanagihara’s keen eye for detail is evident in all three settings. She places the reader in each time period through multiple narratives that she orchestrates with great precision. Book I and Book 2 are dominated by themes of belonging and love. Book III is a close-to-home story about fear over love.

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