Friday, November 12, 2021

Book Review: The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

Pages: 400
Genre: Adult Fiction
Pub. Date: July 6, 2021
Publisher: Riverhead
Source: Library
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Goodreads says, "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."



Elle's family has a house in the back woods of Cape Cod. It's not some beautifully modern beach house though; it's pretty worn down from the past fifty years, but it has been a source of solace for Elle though the years. Her childhood wasn't easy.  Her parents divorced and are entirely dysfunctional.  The step-sibling she has had to endure is a horrific person; however, the one person who was always there for her was Jonas.  She met Jonas on the Cape as children.  No matter what Elle was going through when she was growing up, Jonas had her back even when things got really bad.  Fast forward to many years later on the Cape and Elle is married with kids of her own as well as Jonas. Their families are friends and they still spend a lot of time together.  Elle and Jonas share a lot of secrets that stem from their childhood and while at a dinner party (with their spouses present!), they wander off and start an affair after years of never pursuing a real relationship.  After this encounter, Elle can't help but wonder what if? She loves her life with her devoted husband and her dreamy kids, but what if she took a different path and married Jonas? Miranda Cowley Heller's The Paper Palace is an all-consuming type of read that left me somehow caring about the characters despite their deplorable actions.

Elle is one of the those characters that I tend to judge right away and sort of write her off as being a horrible person, but slowly Heller made me care about her in The Paper Palace. I cast my judgment aside and tried to understand where she was coming from. What happened in her past to make her this way? Well, buckle in, because Heller shares quite a story that eventually comes together to show us a more complete picture of Elle.  While I usually didn't agree with her actions, I could sympathize.  Elle experienced so much trauma! There's so many secrets! 

The way that Heller tells The Paper Palace is really well done. It's sort of like an onion and she peels off each layer slowly. Through flashbacks, readers get more of an understanding as to what Elle experienced in a broken home with dysfunctional parents.  Her mother's new boyfriend and his son, Conrad, really blew up Elle's life.  Some of the scenes made me cringe (especially with Conrad), but it was all necessary to fully understand Elle. Thankfully, Elle always had her sister to lean on and wasn't entirely alone.

The setting of The Paper Palace was so well done. Heller truly brought the Back Woods of Cape Cod to life as well as the dilapidated beach house fondly known as the "Paper Palace".  It was very atmospheric with its ponds, dense foliage, and overgrown trees casting shadows despite the summer sun.

While the first half of the novel was pretty slow going, things definitely pick up and Heller takes you on quite an eye-opening ride.  So, if you enjoy family dramas with a lot of secrets and one that will keep you guessing, check out The Paper Palace. I definitely have me eye on what Miranda Cowley Heller writes next as this is just her debut.

So, have you read The Paper Palace ? Is it on your TBR list? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. 




  1. I like that even though the main character was unlikable at first, the author was able to convince you otherwise!


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