The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller
A sultry, complicated summer read that will grab you from the very first moment.
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.
I want to give a heads up that this novel covers and depicts some very triggering topics. My review will touch on some of these thematic elements, but will not go into great detail. However, if sexual abuse/assault, descriptions of sexual acts, and disordered eating are traumatic for you, this may not be the book for you.
Let's just start by saying that The Paper Palace is one very complicated novel. Like so many of my recent favorite reads, there is no grey area. You either really enjoy this story or it absolutely infuriates you. I landed on the side of really loving this book, but that does not mean that it's perfect.
I was really nervous when I received this pick as a part of a book subscription because I have not had great luck with Reese's Book Club picks, they feel like they end up overhyped, and they never fully live up to their potential. Thankfully, that was not the case this time!
Let's talk about this book, it begins the morning after Elle has cheated on her husband and takes place over 24 hours... sort of. The present timeline takes place over 24 hours, but there are numerous flashbacks to provide context to the present day story. This novel can only be described a cinematic and sultry. As I started reading, I was immediately reminded of movies of the 1960s, like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Rear Window, and The Seven Year Itch. Each of these movies plays on the decisions (mostly bad) that happen when stuck in a hot summer. The heat literally rises off the screen and that is exactly what Cowley Heller creates in the The Paper Palace. As a reader, you can feel how suffocated Elle feels, not only by her desire for Jonas, but by the circumstances that led to their separation then eventual return to each others lives. Her feelings are palpable from the page.
It's clear that Cowley Heller has a wonderful sense of drama and pacing. I was not at all surprised to find out after reading the book that she was the former head of development for HBO in the late 90s. It definitely lends itself to the time where antiheroes were created and, finally, accepted as protagonists. Elle's history is complicated and downright traumatic at times, but it all adds up to make sense for her character to be the way that she is. My only real reservation with the book is its stark depictions of sexual assault as they are almost too raw and almost feel like Cowley Heller was trying to be provocative.
I particularly loved how authentic each of these characters felt. You really come to feel as if you are an intimate friend of Elle and have been with her through all of her experiences. The book highlights how complicated relationships are, especially when there is significant trauma involved. We see the cycle of abuse that can perpetuate itself in generations. One family member is abused, then doesn't process their experiences, in turn creates another generation that is vulnerable to the same behavior inflicted on their children at the hands of someone they trust. Additionally, the story raises the conversation of how silence over trauma only magnifies the original traumatic event. How many horrible things could be avoided if we lived in a world where it was okay to talk about and process these events? What would look different if people were believed when they disclose harassment and assault? Entire histories would be re-written if this were the case. Even if the depiction is brutal, these are necessary conversations to be had.
The Paper Palace is an excellent debut. I have no doubt that it will stick with many readers in many different ways. I also anticipate that we will see a tv adaption of this story in the next several years as it would be such an easy transition!
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