Book review: The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

One day unfolds at the same time as Elle Bishop’s life unfolds in the dual narrative novel The Paper Palace. Elle is at the family cabin at Cape Cod where she has spent every summer of her 50 odd years.

I wonder if he would love me if he could see inside my head, the pettiness, the dirty linen of my thoughts, the terrible things that I have done.

I was quite blown away and discomforted by this story. In the first chapter, I thought…saucy…when the main character recalled her secret sex in the dark against the wall of the cabin with her friend from childhood, Jonas, whilst their respective partners were inside talking and Elle’s mother washed the dinner dishes.

There are some swims you do regret, Eleanor. The problem is, you never know until you take them.

But as the story unfolds, interweaving a series of past and present decisive moments in Elle’s life, her frailty is exposed and it becomes apparent that many of her decisions have been driven by tragic events buried in denial, secrets and lies.

But it’s what we do, what we’ve done for years now. We drag our past behind us like a weight, still shackled, but far enough back that we never have to see, never have to openly acknowledge who we once were.

I found The Paper Palace to be a beautifully written, emotionally demanding read. From the beginning Elle’s life is a series of trials that explore themes including failing marriages, blended families, abuse, trauma, lost opportunities, infidelity, and the complexity of intimacy and betrayal. It is dark, heart wrenching and wistful.

Does letting go mean losing everything you have, or does it mean gaining everything you never had?

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