The author of A Little Life returns with an epic spanning three centuries and three versions of the American experiment, set variously in an alternate version of 1893 New York, an AIDS-besieged 1993 Manhattan and a plague-ridden 2093. What unites these settings and the characters therein are reckonings with the qualities that make us human: Fear. Love. Shame. Need. Loneliness.
... intricately assembled themes and intensely anxious preoccupations ... There are few surface resemblances between A Little Life, Yanagihara’s Booker-shortlisted second novel, and To Paradise, but in both she is deeply, compulsively interested in characters for whom the world seems unattainable, whose histories and temperaments coalesce to render them marginal, held back ... each section conjures a vivid, often startlingly reconfigured America ... In some ways, this is a work whose fascination with entropy – the breakdown of societies, of property, of the body – makes its job almost impossibly hard; we feel as though we are standing in the centre of ever-decreasing circles ... The novel’s title invokes a feeling of expectant adventuring, of happiness waiting somewhere; what, perhaps, nation-builders might feel just as strongly as individuals at the beginning of their lives. Where the suffering and hopelessness of A Little Life created an overwhelming experience that left readers divided around the issue of how much they could take, this is a far subtler delineation of those who feel hamstrung, beleaguered, inadequate to the task ahead. In many ways – not least the questions of political and social responsibility it poses, especially in the face of global catastrophe – it is a darker work, and yet a more fruitfully puzzling, multifaceted one. And behind this impressive, significant novel stands the question: what is a life, if it is not lived in freedom?
I felt the impulse a few times to put down the book and make a chart—the kind of thing you see TV detectives assemble on their living-room walls when they have a web of evidence but no clear theory of the case ... To Paradise, though its plots are too various and intricate to even begin to capture in summary, moves smoothly and quickly ... It is executed with enough deftness and lush detail that you just about fall through it, like a knife through layer cake ... To Paradise evokes the dizzying way that minor events and personal choices might create countless alternative histories and futures, both for individuals and for society. Reading the novel delivers the thrilling, uncanny feeling of standing before an infinity mirror, numberless selves and rooms turning uncertainly before you, just out of reach ... Small choices leading to unforeseen consequences are a conventional feature of fiction, but Yanagihara’s execution of this trope feels compelling and chilling because Charles’s world is so plausibly near to our own possible future ... Yanagihara’s feat in To Paradise is capturing the way that the inevitable chaos of the present unrolls into the future: It happens on both global and intimate levels, always.
Deftly paced and judiciously detailed, the tale makes hay with the conventions of the 19th-century novel. But that’s not all. With breathtaking audacity Yanagihara rewrites America, the Civil War having produced, in this account, not a united country but a conglomeration of territories ... Strikingly, [Yanagihara] ushers her characters offstage only to bring them back, in other eras and other guises, multiple times ... There are dozens of other such reincarnations, and they simultaneously bedazzle and befuddle. If in a Russian novel one struggles to keep track of who is related to whom, here we struggle to keep track of who has turned into whom, especially as Yanagihara masterfully repurposes themes, situations and motifs as well ... Limited and circumstantial as they may ultimately be, acts of love and goodness do leaven this book, which is finally as much concerned with the vulnerable as the inescapable ... In its evocation of eternal recurrence and the illusory nature of life, To Paradise recalls Buddhist ideas and so large a wisdom that it may seem absurdly worldly to critique the novel as a piece of craft. But 700-page books will sag in places, and this one is no exception. It loses steam in the Hawaii section and only fitfully regains momentum until its gripping end ... The dystopian future depicted in the final section is horrific indeed. But reading of the societal developments, we may yearn for the fineness of touch with which the novel opened. In place of Yanagihara’s trademark emotional probing, the last section confronts us with chunks of exposition ... This ambitious novel tackles major American questions and answers them in an original, engrossing way. It has a major feel. But it is finally in such minor moments that Yanagihara shows greatness.