All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

on January 21, 2022

The Paper Palace
Miranda Cowley Heller
Riverhead Books
2021, 388p
Read via my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/}: “This house, this place, knows all my secrets.” 

It is a perfect July morning, and Elle, a fifty-year-old happily married mother of three, awakens at “The Paper Palace”–the family summer place which she has visited every summer of her life. But this morning is different: last night Elle and her oldest friend Jonas crept out the back door into the darkness and had sex with each other for the first time, all while their spouses chatted away inside.

Now, over the next twenty-four hours, Elle will have to decide between the life she has made with her genuinely beloved husband, Peter, and the life she always imagined she would have had with her childhood love, Jonas, if a tragic event hadn’t forever changed the course of their lives. As Heller colors in the experiences that have led Elle to this day, we arrive at her ultimate decision with all its complexity. Tender yet devastating, The Paper Palace considers the tensions between desire and dignity, the legacies of abuse, and the crimes and misdemeanors of families.

I have heard a lot of really amazing things about this book, I’ve had it recommended to me a couple times and it’s even one of Reese Witherspoon’s book club picks. I nabbed it from the local library because I was keen to see what all the fuss was about.

Firstly: trigger warnings for everything. There’s not a lot that’s not in here to be honest, but especially quite graphic descriptions of child sexual abuse so if you find that hard to read (and I think most people do, especially as it’s presented here) then you should definitely approach this with knowledge that you’ll be repeatedly subjected to it.

This is a story of how abuse and trauma is repeated over generations and how perhaps, people make choices that are bad for them because that is what they have seen other people doing. They copy that behaviour or perhaps even subliminally, think they deserve the wrong choice because of this thing or that thing that has happened. But if I were to sum this book up it’s multiple generations of women being subjected to awful things, making terrible romantic choices and for the most part, also being quite terrible parents.

For the most part, the book takes place over about 24 hours but with multiple flashbacks interspersed to show the reader how all the choices and whatever of her mother and grandmother have led main character Elle to where she is now. And that’s having sex with her childhood friend and apparently the ‘one that got away’ up against a wall of the family’s country lake home where Elle has spent every summer of her life. Elle’s husband and mother as well as Jonas’ wife are mere metres away, talking inside. The flashbacks flesh out Elle’s life – the impact of her parent’s divorce and the multiple relationships each had after that, a myriad of bad stepparents and in some cases, awful stepsiblings. Her relationship with her sister Anna, a few years older and her mother, a complex woman who quite honestly, seems like she should never have actually had children and even into her seventies is a bitter and acerbic person who constantly criticises. She was incredibly tedious in the present day but that paled into comparison for how her children were treated by her in their younger years, especially decisions she made or decisions she supported that were about her maintaining a relationship with a man over her daughter’s physical safety and emotional wellbeing.

I can deal with not liking many of the characters if the story intrigues me or if I think there’s reasoning behind their actions. But I hated everyone in this – Elle for the way she treats her husband and her inability to pull the trigger, her knowledge of what will come if she does this thing and also, her passiveness. I know Elle had her incredibly traumatising moments and one of them is something you can see coming for the longest time and the powerless feeling the inevitability of it gave me was immense but everything Elle is in the present day just made me loathe her. Her husband Peter is this weird juxtaposition of all round good guy and yet he’s also incredibly annoying with his stupid remarks, his weird banter with her mother, his lack of parenting their teenage son who, without being pulled up on this behaviour, could turn it into something inherently dangerous. Wallace is awful, a product of her own awful upbringing probably but she willingly contributed to the cycle and picked others over her daughters time and time and time again. Elle and Anna’s father was the same, a weak and spineless man who shunned them every time he got a new wife.

A lot of this hinges on this…..apparently incredible bond that Elle and Jonas have, this friendship that stems all the way back to their childhood. It takes a long time for Jonas to be introduced and to be honest, even though I know they have this big secret that binds them in a way that no one else could probably grasp, I never thought that the book did enough to show that this was a love that had endured for decades, through both of them being married to other people. They spent most of their time together as children and seem to have experienced almost nothing together as adults with adult feelings and understandings. It never struck me as this incredible love story of these two people who tragically couldn’t be together. They could have – years ago. Except Elle kept making different decisions and now she’s married with three children and having sex with Jonas within hearing distance of everyone else. Why now? Why this particular summer? And the way in which it plays out is not a way that makes you think that Jonas cares deeply for her. It’s almost like an act of possession, like he enjoys it partially because everyone is so close. Like he just wants to finally win. It made me uncomfortable, as did the scene on the beach that once again, Jonas orchestrates.

There are no consequences for actions here (with one very glaring exception but it honestly felt like that was orchestrated merely to bind Jonas and Elle together, no other reason) and some (a lot?) of people in this book commit very heinous crimes that they should receive lengthy prison terms for. And you can argue that many people get away with such things and they do. But I wanted more from this book – more awareness, more depth, more showing me why I should give a damn about these people.

This was a disappointing read. And I hated the ending.


Book #13 of 2022

One response to “Review: The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

  1. Thanks for the honest review. Definitely taking your advice on this one!

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