Book Review: The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller – an intense story about family, secrets and the path not taken

You can’t help feeling sorry for Eleanor (Elle) who spends the decades that span The Paper Palace unable to forget her dearest friend and soulmate. She and Jonas have been driven apart by a terrible secret – a horrific sequence of events that casts a shadow over the rest of their lives. We follow them through the years from when they first met, one Cape Cod summer, to the present day several decades later, having built their lives without each other. But we all know that secrets like theirs are sure to come out sooner or later.

The Paper Palace is the nickname given to the holiday home where much of the action takes place, in particular the single day that connects the plot. It’s the day friends and relations have come together to remember Elle’s sister. The summer home has been in the family for generations, a collection of bush-carpentry buildings that include a large kitchen/living space and a number of cabins right on the edge of a wide, swimmable pond. Here, Elle and her older sister Anna ran wild ever summer, a relief from those chilly New York winters, growing up as their parents divorce, take on new lovers, remarry and divorce again.

Elle’s mother, Wallace, states that divorce is good for children, and makes other odd declarations such as that unhappy people are more interesting. Jonas’s partner, Gina, perpetually sunny and straightforward, obviously cuts no ice with Wallace. Elle and Anna are beautiful, confident girls in spite of their mother’s remoteness, her stark comments, her lack of awareness of how her life choices affect her children. Somehow they survive their childhood, have careers and relationships.

But everything comes back to one event in Elle’s teenage years and its consequences, until a much later revelation casts a new light on a decision she made a long time ago. This plot device plus the now and before structure makes you gallop through the pages to learn how that secret will impact on the future. The writing is sharp and funny at times, but best of all is the evocation of summer and long summer vacations. There are butterflies, racoons and shorebirds: bonfires on the beach; walks through the forest as well as swimming and boating. It’s almost like you’re on holiday with them all, in one of the spare cabins. There is definitely a filmic quality, and I can see movie rights being discussed even now.

I just wish I liked the characters more. Elle has a decent career and happy marriage in spite of the events of her growing up but still agonises over Jonas, a character who me for was never quite real. Anna can be cruel, the various parental figures weak, offhand or just plain strange. People are either beautiful in an unspecified way, or if they are ugly, their flabbiness and skin conditions are described in detail. Nobody is just a bit ordinary. This was a little distasteful to me and detracted from the sympathy I should have had for the main characters. And while the story was engaging, it was also somewhat exhausting and I found it a relief to finish. A three out of five read from me.

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