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On the one hand, there aren’t a lot of books like To Paradise by Hanya Yanigahara. It’s sprawling, ambitious, speculative, and devastating. On the other hand, it’s a big world of books out there, and none of them can stand completely alone. Whether through the themes explored in the book — families, marriage, loss, epidemics, utopia/dystopia — lyrical writing, or meticulously developed characters, there are certainly plenty of books like To Paradise to discover.
To Paradise is a tryptic of novels, each set 100 years apart in 1893, 1993, and 2093. The names of the characters persist across each of the stories. So does the setting, a townhome near Washington Square Park in New York. But their worlds are very different. The 1893 portion provides something of an alternate history; a different outcome of the Civil War created marriage equality much earlier than actual history. 1993 is set at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. And if you think 2022 is dystopian, wait until you see her pandemic-riddled vision of 2093.
Reading Hanya Yanigahara’s work is a deeply emotional experience. Fans of her work are readers who love books that present a challenge while also being thoroughly immersive. To Paradise is a departure from her previous smash hit A Little Life for its more explicit engagement with American history, particularly some of the bleak chapters — namely, how the country has treated immigrants and people of color, the battle for marriage equality, as well as how the country has bungled epidemic diseases. Books like To Paradise are also the ones that will examine the hidden connections across people and time. They don’t shy away from heartbreak, and many have sad endings.
As a note, I will say that big fans of To Paradise may want to read the books Yanigahara has specifically mentioned in discussions about this latest work. Washington Square by Henry James provided some inspiration for the first section, while Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham shares the linked past, present(ish), future story structure. Beyond those, here are more books like To Paradise.
Paradise by Toni Morrison
It’s no mistake that Toni Morrison’s work has a similar title to Yanigahara’s. I’m recommending it because they share a major concern: what happens when humans to try to create a paradise on Earth? Rather than having a central character, Paradise presents dozens of characters in the orbit of Ruby, Oklahoma. Ruby is an all-Black town with an all-women commune on the edge of town that rankles some of Ruby’s citizenry. This is one to read if you were intrigued by the commune in Hawaii recounted in To Paradise.
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Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart
Both To Paradise and Young Mungo have stories of gay men finding love and searching for belonging in worlds that are hostile to them. Young Mungo, set in Glasgow, chronicles the relationship of Mungo, a Protestant, and James, a Catholic. They’re meant to be sworn enemies, except they’re not at all. If you’re looking for a book that will absolutely wreck you, this is the one.
The Actual Star by Monica Byrne
Where To Paraside looks at the same New York City apartment 100 years apart, The Actual Star looks at the same cave in Belize 1000 years apart. The way the stories converge, tying twins ruling a Mayan kingdom to a traveler in 2012 to a far future utopia on the brink of war is nothing short of breathtaking. If you love the deep worldbuilding of To Paradise, this book is a fantastic choice.
The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine
Among books like To Paradise, this is one that explores the lives of gay men, particularly ones living in the United States during the AIDS crisis. It’s set over the course of one night in the waiting room of a psych clinic. Jacob, a Yemeni-born poet, recounts his life as he is attended to by Satan, Death, and 14 angels. The book is rife with sadness and longing, making it perfect for fans of To Paradise. But it also has some really cutting humor that is provocative, incisive, and irreverent.
Someone to Talk To by Zhenyun Liu, translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chun Lin
To Paradise is a meditation on connection and loneliness, and how government and politics can affect people’s ability to connect. Someone to Talk To, in translation from Chinese, deals with similar themes in a different country and over a different historical time period. In it, a kidnapped girl named Qiaoling is the link between two men named Yang Baishun and Niu Aiguo. Both Yang and Niu have struggled to forge connections over the course of their lives. As the novel unfolds, it underscores the nature of communication and the long reach small actions can have.
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
Another book that spans past to future like To Paradise is Sea of Tranquility. This one is more speculative than To Paradise, but it does also create that web of connections across space and time. A man playing the violin in an airship corridor is an experience rippling through time. A man exploring the Canadian wilderness comes across it, a novelist pens it into her book, and a detective investigates it. This mysterious and dazzling novel will certainly have you musing about the nature of time.
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel
If the melancholy tone of Hanya Yanigahara’s work appeals to you, you should absolutely be reading Murakami. A pervasive atmosphere of sadness permeates basically all of his work, but I chose one to highlight for you. Kafka on the Shore is certainly more whimsical than To Paradise, but it also focuses on unexpectedly entwined destinies. Kafka, a teenage runaway, meets Nakata, a man whose special abilities help him find lost cats. The two embark on a wild journey to find out who Kafka really is.
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
What connects past, present, and future in Cloud Cuckoo Land is an ancient text. Cloud Cuckoo Land (the name of the ancient text in the book) is its own sort of paradise various characters in time are seeking, just as characters are in To Paradise. If you’re curious how a book could connect an orphaned seamstress in 1453, a disgruntled kid in 2020, and someone in the far future looking to save the human race, this book will provide a profound answer.
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
If you don’t shy away from dystopian visions of the future like the one in To Paradise, here is a book that provides a different but also bleak look at what’s to come. Like To Paradise, the stakes are very personal in this book that imagines evolution beginning to rapidly reverse. The protagonist, Cedar, is pregnant. She risks being rounded up by a theocratic government. They’re trying to oversee pregnancies to make as many result in viable, fully human children. The story follows her quest to keep herself and her child safe and richly delves into Cedar’s relationships.
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
It’s really important to understand the impact AIDS has had on society and culture. To Paradise makes AIDS one of the book’s many concerns, but The Great Believers focuses how the disease ravaged communities. Yale works for an art gallery in 1980s Chicago and witnesses his friends die one by one until Fiona, his friend’s sister, is the only person remaining in his life. Fiona’s story picks up 30 years later, when she finally grapples with the effect AIDS had on her life and relationships. This is another book that is as vivid and heartbreaking as To Paradise.
This is a really heavy pile of books like To Paradise, both physically and metaphorically speaking. But you may want more, or you may be looking for a book that addresses an aspect of To Paradise I didn’t mention. In that case, check out Tailored Book Recommendations to find the book that will tear your heart out in precisely the way you desire!