Much of what is known of Yanagihara relates to her day job as editor-in-chief of T – the New York Times style magazine, although a little more was gleaned via the interviews which followed the success of what has been described as the cultural phenomenon of her second novel. Interviews which were necessary as the ‘about the author’ section of that novel simply reads “Hanya Yanagihara lives in New York City”.
That cultural phenomenom was A Little Life. A book which divided people – a real Marmite book as we’d say here in the UK – people either adored it or hated it. I couldn’t blame those who hated it, for reading about self-harm and sexual abuse – especially the sexual abuse of a child – is not the way most people would chose to spend their time. It’s not how I’d chose to spend my time, yet I found it hard to put down. I am categorically not a fan of what is termed “misery memoirs” – avoiding them like the plague, yet I was blown away – absolutely convinced I’d read that year’s Booker winner. Sad to say, I was wrong.
At the time, I described it as the best book I’ve read for a long while, and I’ve not changed my mind nearly 7 years later. Despite the headlines being about his abuse and self-harm, the majority of the book tells the story of Jude’s adult relationships, where the focus is on friendship, love, kindness and acceptance. But the big question it asks is whether the extent of a child’s suffering ever be healed by loving adult relationships? An emotional and moving tale, sad but beautiful, and one which brought me to tears more than once.
I rarely pre-order books, but I did with Yanagihara’s next book To Paradise, rushing to finish what I was reading when it hit my Kindle on publication day. Written in three parts, each separated by 100 years, Parts 1 & 2 were full of promise.
Part 1 – set in the 1880s – is the story of rich and powerful family the Binghams, living in a grand house on Washington Square, New York, in a version of New York located in an enlightened group of states where the populace is free to partner with their preferred gender. The story focuses on indulged son David, torn between the nice man introduced to him with the aim of marriage, and the unsuitable man he falls in love with. Despite evidence that his lover is a fraudster, David chooses to follow him to California – located in the risky less enlightened states – to build a new life.
Part 2 – set in the 1980s – is the story of another David, a young Hawaiian paralegal in a relationship with a rich and powerful man called Charles, who now owns the house in Washington Square. This version of the 1980s also suffers from the impact of HIV/Aids – and the story of Charles and his friends living and dying, is played out against the story of David’s previous life and that of his estranged father in Hawaii.
Parts 1 and 2 only take up half the book, with Part 3 making up the significant portion. In Part 3, two stories are weaved together: Charlie, who survived a pandemic when a child, but was left with limited mental capacities by the medication which saved her life, and her grandfather Charles, seen via correspondence with his best friend some 50 years earlier. Set in the 2090s, Charlie and her husband live in a small apartment within the Washington Square house – once hers, now taken over by the state. In this dystopian future where harsh and brutal decisions were made to battle multiple pandemics, the government controls everything, up to and including choice of mate and fertility. Through Charles’s letters we see him drawn further away from scientist to government servant, and the impact that has on David – his son and Charlie’s father – an activist battling those choices. With a degree of inevitability, they come for Charles, so Charlie is left alone with the husband her grandfather selected for her. Unknown to her, Charles also begged his friend to get her out of New York and to safety – To Paradise.
Parts 1 and 2 flowed and worked well as standalone tales (which may or may not have been linked), but Part 3 felt more problematic, even as I read it. The story it told was a potentially powerful one, picking up many of the fears expressed during the current pandemic. But – and I hate to admit it – I skim read a lot of it, because the dystopian detail was so turgid and dense, it felt like we were being hit over the head with a sledgehammer to make sure we understood the point being made. I cried out for a damn good editor to have been let loose on it.
There were other oddities. The first being the use of the same names throughout. A hint perhaps to there being familial links – but it was never made clear, and so felt like a distraction. The second being that the idealised nature of the group of states was demonstrated by its widespread acceptance of sexual choice but, while that acceptance included Asian races, it still specifically excluded Blacks – and that left me wondering why, and what point, if any, was being made.
On a positive note, I really enjoyed learning about Hawaii – the life, the history, the art, the culture – and I got to wondering whether this had started out as a tale about Hawaii, and then got hijacked by the pandemic. If always intended as a pandemic tale, I shall mourn the book about Hawaii that I missed out on, for Yanagihara is surely well placed to have written one.
Yanagihara describes Hawaii as the ‘imaginary homeland’ for all Asian Americans. She has lived there, and her parents met there – her father a native of Hawaii, her mother brought up there after her birth in Seoul. Both parents are creative (they were illustrators when they met) but her father is also a haematologist, and the family travelled across the US with his work. Literature, design, art, culture – these are loves she inherited from her parents.
Parts 1 and 2 felt well on their way to 5 stars, until Part 3 hit. I’ve vacillated between 3 and 4 for the book, ending up on 4. I feel my expectations were set exceptionally high by her previous book, and I’d have probably given this a 4 if written by an author new to me. But, to be honest, I’m still vacillating….
© Debra Carey, 2022