The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller
Published by Penguin Viking on July 8th
Available from West End Lane Books and All Good Bookshops
What They Say
Before anyone else is awake, on a perfect August morning, Elle Bishop heads out for a swim in the glorious freshwater pond below ‘The Paper Palace’ — the gently decaying summer camp in the back woods of Cape Cod where her family has spent every summer for generations. As she passes the house, Elle glances through the screen porch at the uncleared table from the dinner the previous evening; empty wine glasses, candle wax on the tablecloth, echoes of laughter of family and friends. Then she dives beneath the surface of the freezing water to the shocking memory of the sudden passionate encounter she had the night before, up against the wall behind the house, as her husband and mother chatted to the guests inside.
So begins a story that unfolds over twenty-four hours and across fifty years, as decades of family legacies, love, lies, secrets, and one unspeakable incident in her childhood lead Elle to the precipice of a life-changing decision. Over the next twenty-four hours, Elle will have to decide between the world she has made with her much-loved husband, Peter, and the life she imagined would be hers with her childhood love, Jonas, if a tragic event hadn’t forever changed the course of their lives.
Tender yet devastating, The Paper Palace is a masterful novel that brilliantly illuminates the tensions between desire and safety; the legacy of tragedy, and the crimes and misdemeanours of families.
What I Say
Do you ever pick up a book assuming it is going to be one thing when in fact it is something completely different and all the better for it?
I am going to be honest and say when I first read the synopsis for The Paper Palace I really thought it was not my kind of thing. I thought it would be a novel where the well off and distant characters would be worrying about things of little consequence and even lesser relevance. I picked it up because I thought I should, because it had kindly been sent to me. The thing is, once I started reading it, I could not put it down.
The Paper Palace of the name is the place where Elle and Jonas and their families go to every Summer and have done since they met as children. It has undoubtedly seen better days, but it gives them that escape and distance from the realities and stresses of modern life and marriage. After a dinner party, Elle leaves table as does Jonas, and they have sex – bearing in mind Elle’s husband Peter, and Jonas’ wife Gina are sat at the table just out of sight.
The novel then follows the next twenty four hours in Elle and Jonas’ life, as they try to make sense of what they have done. What slowly and delicately unfurls is a whole shared history that Elle and Jonas have. Heller takes us right back to the moment Elle was born, which in turn allows us to see how her parents own experiences and behaviour influenced Elle’s decisions and actions. It seems that all Elle wants is a stable family with her sister Anna and a mother and father, what she actually gets is a chaotic and disruptive childhood, peppered with different father figures until her mother marries a man called Leo. Her mother has endured much through her own life, including being sexually abused by her step father, but this means that she now cannot emotionally connect with her children either.
Leo brings with him two children. Rosemary who tends to stay with her mother, and Conrad. An awkward, resentful and intrinsically desperately unhappy boy who longs for his father to pay him some attention. After initially being an irritating and awful stepbrother to Elle, things become incredibly sinister.
He starts coming into her room at night and watching her while she sleeps. It is important at this point in my review to say that his sustained attention becomes sexual, and culminates in events which are absolutely distressing to read but absolutely crucial and integral to the plot and narrative. What makes it even more horrific is the fact that Elle is unable to tell anyone and carries round her secret, still having to face Conrad every day. Until the moment Jonas works out what has happened to Elle, and their lives are changed forever.
The Paper Palace is a completely immersive novel- you can see the beautiful landscape, feel the coolness of the water and taste the leisurely breakfasts and dinners that the families have. You are part of the languid unstructured summer as the family spill in and out of the house and onto the beach and into the water. If they see other people nearby they feel they are intruding on their sacred peace, and as a reader you absolutely understand why.
Heller draws you in from the very start, and the way in which the lives of Elle and Jonas are revealed to us connects us deeply to them. Their histories and shared experiences are depicted in such a way that you cannot fail to feel a connection to them, and the drastic decision they make is at the heart of the novel, and drives the narrative without ever feeling forced or laboured. The characters work so well because you can see them standing in front of you, and understand how their past lives have shaped their present, but also make you see that their futures are up to them – if they are brave enough to take the chance.
I thought that The Paper Palace was going to be a linear, routine narrative about two people who have to deal with the consequences of a rash mistake. What I didn’t anticipate was that this novel is in fact always Elle and Jonas’ story, that their love for one another would permeate every single page and every decision they made, and that to follow their lives through this book is to know them and want only what they truly deserve. Is it each other? You will have to read it to find out.
I absolutely loved it.
I am also thrilled to announce that I have a copy to gift to one of you on my Twitter account @yearsofreading – please do have a look.
Thank you so much to Hannah Sawyer and Alexia Thomaidis at Viking Books UK for my gifted proof copy.
You can order your copy from West End Lane Books here