I am a very lucky person, I get sent lots of great books and proofs, and I don’t always get to them. And I feel bad about it, because there are so many great books I miss out on reading.
I’m mentioning this, because one such book is The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller. So many people have said such great things about it recently, that I thought, I’m going to have to give it a go.
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.
It’s kind of told over 24 hours, except it’s not, because throughout we get flashbacks to various points in Elle’s life.
But it starts at 6.30am, in a place called the Back Woods at a lake house that Elle and her family have had for years. It’s a quiet place, very secluded, a small community nearby.
Elle has a husband Peter, two children and her mother. They’re all in this house that is referred to as ‘the paper palace’ because the walls are thin, it’s just been quickly thrown up and everything feels like it might be just about to fall down.
That is a bit of a metaphor for Elle’s life in general, she as a younger girl got to know Jonas, a couple of years younger than her. They became best friends and they grew up together over subsequent summers.
This feels like I’m getting ahead of myself, and yet not. Because this story jumps around in time, it’s hard to tell you exactly what happens.
Right at the beginning, we find out Elle has had sex with somebody who is not her husband, and that somebody was Jonas, in fact. Her childhood best friend.
Over the course of the day as we learn about her history with her family and with Jonas, Elle is going about her day and trying to come to terms with what is quite a polarising moment in her life. This man who has always been there, the man who was nearly always the love of her life, but that nothing happened with.
Then she has sex with him, despite being happily married. And now she has to work out what to do with her life. Is she going to run off with Jonas, or stay with her family.
That’s the crux of this story. It’s very well-written, it’s evocative of place, you can feel the community and the lake you can hear it. I had in mind Michael Kiwanuka’s Cold Little Heart while I was reading this, that slow, relaxing and yet incredibly dramatic music perfectly fits the heart of this book.
I struggled with the main character of this story, I struggled to identify with her at the beginning, but I was able to relate to her more throughout the story. I think that was intentional, that we were supposed to grow to like her, to understand her as the story goes on.
She’s supposed to present as an enigma at the beginning, waiting to be unravelled. But, that meant I didn’t have much sympathy for her, for this dilemma she’s going through.
I’m not privy to the reasons as to why she’s cheated on her husband, which made me not care as much about her problem.
As we understand the relationship between them, we start to understand why she had sex with him, but what I didn’t get was why now.
This relationship of theirs has been going on for years, they’ve spent summers as adults together, they’ve got families. Something has caused them to give into recklessness, to give into this temptation.
It’s never really explained. There’s no inciting incident that made this happen, no big argument between her and her husband, no declarations of love. There was no real explanation as to why suddenly, it happened.
That made me struggle with it a little bit – other than that, it’s a really good read. It’s not necessarily something I’m going to look back on in a couple of years and be abel to tell you the details of, but in the moment, it was a brilliant be.