#SheReviews The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

March 14, 2022

Annual summer beach holidays have an intrinsic capacity to instil in us an overriding sense of wonder, hope and the unshakeable belief that these sublimely carefree days will last forever.

Such is most certainly the case in American author Miranda Cowley Heller’s stunningly captivating and beautifully nuanced debut novel, “The Paper Palace”.

Taking place over the course of a day in the present, interspersed with events taking place over the last fifty years up until now, the novel centres on it’s main protagonist, Elle Bishop (who is now fifty), and her family’s annual pilgrimage to their somewhat dilapidated, but never-the-less rustically endearing, cabins and “the Big House” at Cape Cod, a cape jutting out delicately into the wild and at times icy Atlantic Ocean from the state of Massachusetts, in the north eastern area of the United States, which is an alluring summer holiday mecca for many Americans, including the Kennedys.

Elle, her father, Henry, mother, Wallace and older sister Anna, delightedly frequent their Cape Cod property as a young family, Elle later frequenting it with Anna, Wallace, step-father Leo and step-brother Conrad. As Elle realises years later, “The best lesson my mother ever taught me: There are two things in life you never regret – a baby and a swim”.

When Elle is eleven years old and on holiday at the Cape, she is out by herself one day and encounters a demurely forlorn boy named Jonas, who is eight. Jonas and Elle then become tight, inseparable and loyal friends, reuniting most summers thereafter – united in their unyielding love of Cape Cod, it’s mesmerising wildlife, serenely opulent ocean vistas and enchanting woods, and each other (Elle steals a kiss with Jonas underwater at one stage).

One unforeseeable, gut-wrenching summer, when Elle and Jonas are teenagers, two cataclysmic events occur which produce seismic shifts, the shadows of which are all-encompassing, in both Elle’s and Jonas’s lives’ forever. The following summer, Jonas does not come to Cape Cod, instead attending “a camp in northern Maine”.

Elle goes on to study French literature and attend “grad school” in London, where she meets her husband, an irreverent yet solidly dependable Englishman called Peter, a journalist. They live together in London for a time, before Elle comes to the realisation that she needs to be back in America. As she muses to herself, “I had…no way to get any of it out of my head. Even moving to another country did nothing”.

Elle and Peter marry and have three loving children, Jack, Maddy and Finn. They themselves spend seemingly endless and serene summers at “the Big House” and cabins. 

Despite not seeing each other for a time after ‘that summer’, Elle runs into Jonas at a coffee shop in New York before she is married; a ‘meeting’ in which so much is left unsaid, and the intensity of feeling runs high between them. Jonas is at this stage studying art (he later has a gallery).

Jonas starts coming to the Cape for summers with his new wife, Gina. It is in the present day, when Jonas, Gina and Elle, Peter and their children and Wallace are holidaying at the Cape together (they have all by now shared their Cape Cod holidays together for many years), that Jonas and Elle ‘sneak out’ one night and share a lover’s tryst. Elle reflects that night, “I could look at him and nothing else for eternity and be happy”. Jonas himself confides in Elle the next day, “I’ve been in love with you since I was eight”.

Will Elle give up the love she shares with Peter for the love reminiscent of Catherine and Heathcliff, from “Wuthering Heights” or Romeo and Juliet from Shakespeare in it’s intensity that Elle shares with Jonas? Will Elle and Jonas ever come to peace with the gut-wrenching events that took place in their lives’ that summer so long ago, but events that they have never forgotten or properly come to terms with?

Miranda Cowley Heller has written a highly intelligent novel, full of sharply effective observations on the undeniably complex human condition and at times fragile human psyche. It is justifiable that this novel was a number one “New York Times” bestseller, and a “Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick”. Although the subject matter in “The Paper Palace” is at-times heartbreaking, confronting and distressing, this novel is ultimately a jewelled gift to the reader. Hope and love are infused throughout the book. It is a book that will have you reflecting on it long after the last page is turned. I really enjoyed this book.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.