Originally published: 8 July 2021
Author: Miranda Cowley Heller
Published by: Viking Books
Length: 372 pages
Reading dates: 7-12 July 2021
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.
Set in Cape Cod, in a slightly run down summer camp that has been in Elle’s family since her grandfather brought it, the family spend summer after summer swimming in the lake, visiting the beaches and spending time with the other families that holiday there. The camp consists of a main house where the family eat and spend time together and separate cabins where they sleep. As the book opens, we learn that after a night of drinking and eating with her family and friends, Elle has had sex with her lifelong friend Jonas. Happily married to Peter, she has three children and is shocked by what she allowed herself to do.
The book then goes back in time to 1966 as Elle is born and we hear about her childhood, about her parents splitting up and the difficult relationships she has with both as they find new partners. The majority of the book is dedicated to Elle’s childhood and teenage years where she often had a love-hate relationship with her older sister Anna and thoroughly disliked their step-brother Conrad. We also hear how she met Jonas and how the two of them became friends as children and teenagers until a terrible event drove them apart.
A remarkable debut, The Paper Palace drew me in to Elle’s life and I could picture the setting so vividly. There are some distressing scenes of abuse and rape and at times the characters decisions frustrated me but I could understand their reasons for acting the way they did. Elle’s decision about if she should leave her husband Peter for Jonas is at the heart of the book and it is beautifully written. I adore books like this – books that are an immersive and powerful look at families and what hides beneath the surface. Absolutely 5 stars from me – brilliant.
Thank you to Hannah for my gifted proof copy.
About the author:
Miranda Cowley Heller was raised in New York in a family of artists, writers and editors. Her grandfather was the literary critic Malcolm Cowley. After graduating from Harvard, she was the associate fiction and books editor at Cosmopolitan Magazine, before working for almost a decade as Senior Vice President and Head of Drama Series at HBO, developing and overseeing such shows as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood, and Big Love, among others. She currently serves on the Board of the Fine Arts Work Center (FAWC) in Provincetown, MA, and, until its merger with PEN America last year, was Treasurer and on the Board of PEN CENTER-USA. She divides her time between Los Angeles, London and Cape Cod. The Paper Palace is her first novel.