Title: The Paper Palace
Author: Miranda Cowley Heller
Published: July 2nd 2021
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary, Literary
Rating: 5+ stars
A magnificent literary debut about the myriad loves that make up a life
Before anyone else is awake, on a perfect August morning, Elle Bishop heads out for a swim in the glorious fresh water 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 a dinner party the previous evening; empty wine glasses, candle wax on the table cloth, 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 outside the house, as her husband and mother chatted to the dinner guests inside.
So begins a story that unfolds over 24 hours and across 50 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 24 hours, Elle will have to decide between the life 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.
“There are some swims you do regret, Eleanor. The problem is, you never know until you take them.”
Sometimes a very special book that you will treasure with all your heart for years to come pops into your life at exactly the right time. The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller is just that type of novel. I embraced, loved and ached for this book so very much. The Paper Palace was quite a life changing tale for me. I drank in the undying love between two childhood friends and the soul crushing decision that has to be made in regards to a marriage.
Selected by celebrity book campaigner Reese Witherspoon as her July 2021 book club read, The Paper Palace is a literary feel contemporary fiction novel. It is penned by the former head of drama at HBO, so the book has a magnificent cinematic touch. The Paper Palace is set simultaneously between the US locations of New York and Cape Cod, with a brief foray in London. It unveils a rich tapestry of family secrets all surrounding Elle Bishop, a woman who reflects on her tumultuous 50-year life as she weighs up a life changing decision. As years of secrets, trauma, pain, loss, tragedy, friendship, obsession, withheld truths, lies and passions are exposed, Elle draws closer to her big decision. Will Elle choose the love that exists between her and Jonas, a childhood friend for decades, or will she stay with her beloved husband Peter? Eventually the walls of The Paper Palace and the pond that surrounds this idyllic locale speak to Elle, providing her with the answer to this heart-wrenching decision.
To begin with, I’m going to be completely frank and say that The Paper Palace is a story that will divide readers. All across the social media world there have been readers out there that have loved this story as much as I did (to infinity). While other readers have have not managed to finish the novel, abandoned it and found it quite an unmoving, even torturous experience. There are definitely huge triggers accompanying this book – right from the opening. The Paper Palace contains scenes of eroticism, rape, incest, child abuse, stillbirth, death, sex, violent attacks, harassment, drug use and terminal illness. The Paper Palace can be a dark and hard book to swallow. However, the difficult topics did not seem to faze me. I looked forward to my daily walks listening to the Audible version of this story with the pitch perfect narrator. I loved being a part of Elle Bishop’s world and her Cape Cod palace.
Having lived in only two countries in my forty-year life, I haven’t really thought twice about Cape Cod, one of the two key locations of The Paper Palace. It is obvious that the author holds a deep first-hand understanding and clear passion for this part of the world. Thanks to Miranda Cowley Heller’s expressive and truly magnificent descriptive prose, I couldn’t get enough of this location. Some readers out there may feel as though the language is indulgent and pretentious, but I absolutely adored it. The author’s immersive and situational prose is also evident in her New York sequences, the alternative location base for her lead.
Now I come to the characters and oh boy were they truly magnificent conglomerations! I completely wound myself around lead character Elle. Although Elle is an extremely flawed and problematic protagonist, there was something about her that was utterly magnetising. Her family relationships with her troubled mother Wallace and her big sister Anna were just so real, as well as completely mesmerising. Elle’s husband Peter was a solid and loyal rock. I was comforted by Peter’s presence on the pages of this one of a kind story. There are a number of unforgettable side characters that fill The Paper Palace. These figures are so vivid and lifelike that I felt as though I was personally acquainted with them, even though some of them left a bitter taste in my mouth. Finally, I have saved the best until last. Elle’s childhood friend Jonas was my favourite protagonist by far, every time Jonas appeared in the book my heart seemed to beat a little faster, my face lit up and I felt enamoured by his presence. This is one radiant love story that defies everything and I will never forget it, despite the rather ambiguous ending. Those readers who have already experienced The Paper Palace will be aware of the rather unclear ending decision wise. But I made up my own mind about how I wanted this incredible love story to end – even though it was not the right one morally.
If there are reading groups out there looking for a conflicting book to discuss, I think The Paper Palace would be perfect. This transcendent love and life story has seeped into my bones. It is an all-time favourite for me, a Mrs B’s Book Reviews hall of fame read.
The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller was published on 2nd July 2021 by Penguin Books Australia. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of The Paper Palace, Miranda Cowley Heller, visit here.