Review 2072: To Paradise

After reading Yanagihara’s deeply touching second book, A Little Life, I couldn’t wait to plunge into To Paradise. While reading the first section, though, I was afraid I was going to be disappointed, especially as it is of the genre speculative fiction, which is not one I’m usually interested in. But Yanagihara knows how to spin a tale.

The novel is split into three books, each set 100 years apart, starting in 1893. Although I’ve seen the novel described as a history of a family, let’s just say that names and personas repeat through the book, only with characters taking different roles. All of the books are set in New York City. They also feature strangely inert main characters.

This New York, though, is different from the one we know. After a civil war, the United States is fractured into pieces, one of which, called the Free States (in which New York resides), believes in freedom of religion and marriage between any two adults. David Bingham belongs to a family whose members are all in same-sex marriages. He is from a wealthy old family, and he is the eldest, but he has been a disappointment to his grandfather. He is subject to bouts of debilitating depression and seizures, and he has shown no interest in pursing any kind of career.

Another characteristic of the Free States is the prevalence of arranged marriages. David’s grandfather has been trying to arrange one for him, and the current candidate is an older man named Charles Griffith, whom David has at least agreed to meet. He likes Charles, but then he meets Edward Bishop, a poor musician. David falls for Edward, a man he knows his grandfather would consider a fortune hunter.

In 1993, David Bingham is a young Hawaiian who has left his home and his heritage as a native prince and with an incomplete law degree is working in a law firm. He is living with the wealthy older head of the firm, Charles Griffith, and although he loves Charles, because of this relationship, he spends most of his time with older men. AIDS is making its way through the community.

Also part of this book is a long narrative by David’s father, who is obsessed by his friendship with Edward Bishop, a Hawaiian nationalist with a dream of a return to a Hawaiian monarchy. Although this action causes a bit of a lull in the novel’s forward motion, we come to understand David’s alienation from his family.

In 2093, Charlie Griffith is a young woman living in a dangerous and autocratic society, the controls of which are designed to limit the spread of a deadly series of infectious diseases. Charlie herself is limited mentally and emotionally because she was a victim of one of these viruses when she was a child.

Her grandfather has arranged a marriage for her, but has traded a possibility of a loving marriage for a secure one with a gay male. Her husband has vowed to care for her in exchange for the appearance of a heterosexual marriage because homosexuality is becoming illegal. Then Charlie makes a friend named David.

This novel has many overarching themes, that of family, particularly relationships with grandparents, as none of the protagonists have functioning parents; sexuality in society; sickness and disease; and self-actualization. I was at first taken aback by the extreme passivity of its protagonists and in fact thought the first David Bingham was selfish and immature. Still, Yanigihara’s narrative pulls you in, and I found this novel completely absorbing. Some readers will be disappointed by Yanagihara’s decision to leave endings open, but I think that’s one of the things that makes this ambitious novel more interesting.

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Review 1777: In the Eye of the Sun

Best of Ten!

Recently, I remembered liking Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love, so I decided to see if she had written anything else. What I turned up was In the Eye of the Sun, which her Wikipedia page confusingly calls her debut novel, even though she wrote one earlier.

In the Eye of the Sun is the story of the maturing of a young Egyptian woman, told over a period of 13 years. The daughter of two university professors, Asya wants to get a Ph.D. in English literature and teach at Cairo University. The novel looks back to 1979 when she is studying for her General Certificate of Secondary Education before beginning at the university and follows her until shortly after she finishes her Ph.D.

Although the novel deals with many subjects—cultural collision, Near Eastern politics, family, sexuality among them—it primarily concerns Asya’s relationship with Saif, who eventually becomes her husband. Asya meets Saif early in her university career and falls madly in love with him. The two want to marry, but her parents insist that they wait until she graduates. They don’t even allow them to become engaged for a couple of years.

At first, their relationship is intense, even though it does not involve intercourse because Saif wants to wait. However, Asya feels him pulling away from her as soon as they are engaged. She has caught him in a few pointless lies, but she doesn’t challenge him with them. However, he stops wanting to discuss anything of substance. Asya does not attempt any kind of discussion of these issues, though, before they are married. Nor does she discuss them with anyone else.

At their marriage, things become even more complicated, because Asya finds sex so painful that after a few attempts Saif stops trying. They never fully consummate their marriage. Even when Asya begs him to try, Saif seems more content to treat her as a sort of doll, picking out clothes and buying jewelry for her. Their marriage becomes even more difficult when he takes a job in Syria while she goes to attend a university in Northern England. There, she finds the surroundings cold and uncongenial and her studies in linguistics difficult.

This novel is quite long, but it is involving and extremely honest. Although a primarily sympathetic character, Asya can be quite annoying in her personal contradictions, for she doggedly continues intellectual disagreements while seldom broaching personal issues. She is brilliant while being occasionally terribly neurotic. I strongly felt that this was an autobiographical novel. If so, Soueif’s honesty is extraordinary.

The Map of Love

The Wife

Under the Lemon Trees

Review 1645: The 1936 Club! Nightwood

When I looked for books to read for the 1936 Club, I picked a couple of rereads, as I usually do, but also tried to find one I hadn’t read before. That novel was Nightwood, which I had heard of for years.

T. S. Eliot, who wrote the original Introduction and had a great deal to do with its publication, said that it would “appeal primarily to readers of poetry.” That comment struck dread into my heart, because I am not a big poetry reader. And indeed this is a difficult novel.

The plot is relatively slight. Felix, an Austrian Jew and pseudo-baron, marries Robin Vote because he wants a son to pass his heritage to. Robin is an enigma whom we only see through the eyes of those infatuated with her. She is boyish, and the Doctor, an intersex character who is also an enigma, implies that she is also intersex. Robin seems to view motherhood with horror, so she leaves Felix with his son and takes up with Nora, who is madly in love with her and spends most of her time dragging her, dead drunk, out of sleazy Parisian nightclubs. Then Robin dumps Nora for Jenny, a woman who always wants what other people have.

All the characters are distraught.

The novel is most known for its style and language. It is crammed with images and metaphor, but it is difficult to understand what the characters are talking about, especially the Doctor. I felt like I understood him less than half the time.

The novel seems filled with dread, as it might well in pre-World War II Europe, even though its characters’ preoccupations are not political. I found it disturbing, thought-provoking, and astonishing.

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Review 1643: Girl, Woman, Other

Readers who prefer traditional narrative styles beware—there are hardly any periods in Girl, Woman, Other. Although I often enjoy more experimental novels, this bothered me at first, because it forces Evaristo to start a new paragraph almost every sentence, if you can call them sentences—many are more like lists. After a while, I got used to it.

Girl, Woman, Other is about the lives of British black women, twelve women who each has her own chapter. The plot, which is minimal, centers around a play about black female warriors named The Last Amazon of Dahomey, written and produced by Amma, a radical feminist gay woman. The novel is divided into four parts, each devoted to the lives of three women who have some type of relationship to each other. But there are more relationships within the book, some of them surprising.

The novel is fresh, the stories interesting, many of the characters justifiably angry. I wasn’t sure how much I liked it, though, until the Epilogue, which was touching.

All-in-all, Booker prize winner or not, I would call this novel of linked stories a semi-successful experiment in form and writing style. It is at times a little didactic through characters’ speeches, but it does tell some powerful stories about the experiences of black women, women’s sexuality, women in general.

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