Book Review: The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

Read: August 12-14, 2021, 4.5/5 stars.

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller was nothing like what I’d expected and became everything I wanted it to be over the course of the novel.

We meet Elle when she is feeling tired, content, and hungover, looking at the dregs of last night’s dinner and the rising sun on her little slice of heaven; the pond she grew up on from the porch of The Paper Palace, the endearing nickname for the family summer compound. We also quickly learn that’s she has, at long last, slept with her best friend while her husband was just on the other side of the wall.

This made me hate Elle right away. Adultery within the first ten pages, disclosed in a crass way (“Last night I finally fucked him”) with seemingly no regret or care for those around her. What was I getting myself into with this story? It turns out that everything was quite the opposite of what I’d initially thought.

Heller progresses the story through the 24 hour period after Elle and Jonas sleep together, but intersperses flashbacks from Elle’s life starting when she was three months old, screaming, needing emergency surgery, and a doctor accidentally cuts off one her ovaries in the rushed process. We learn that not only is Elle a loving girl, but one who was denied the types of love that children need. Neither of her parents were attentive or nurturing. For most of her early years, she doesn’t really get along with her older sister Anna. The one loving constant in her life is her beloved paternal grandmother, whose life later comes to a devastating end.

Elle suffers so much trauma at the hands of her parents, stepparents, step siblings, and strangers. These sick, twisted, traumatic experiences are all *a lot* for anyone, or any character, to handle and reading it was no joy ride. What Heller was able to do through the backstory was create a loveable, believable, raw female character that I deeply connected with, even never having (THANKFULLY) lived her same experiences. My initial reaction of disgust to Elle’s adultery within the first pages of the novel quickly dissipated as I learned more about who she is and how she came to be that way.

There were some plot points in the story that I thought were left unexplained. I would have gladly read another 150 pages if Heller had written about these things in more detail. They are as follows (mild spoilers):

Elle’s sister Anna. For most of the novel they bicker and fight, as sisters always do. There was a moment when Anna confided in Elle during their teen years which I think is when Heller wanted the reader to say “oh, this is the moment that they become friends, okay cool.” I just didn’t buy it. She had an awful boyfriend all through her 20s who Elle repeatedly complains about and makes it clear that the boyfriend and the fact that Anna lived in Los Angeles was keeping them apart. Then all of the sudden I’m supposed to believe that Anna calls Elle and flies across the country in the dead of winter (she was summer visitor only) to spend time with her sister? We learn why very quickly that she is terminally ill. It just felt forced. The scene where Elle gets into the wrong elevator when Anna is on her death bed…what ended up happing there? Did Elle tell Anna her big secret? I think she didn’t, but there’s just not enough. And then there’s a twenty year time jump from Anna’s death to the present day timeline. I was left wanting more about Anna and Elle.

Elle’s maternal grandfather: I can’t even remember his name right now, that’s how few details there were about him. I mean, he left The Paper Palace compound to his daughter, Elle’s mother, so he obviously played a significant role in the family, unlike Elle’s own father who just ditched them for new wives. So why don’t we learn more about this grandfather? What was his personality like? Was he around when they were children? The only mention of this is when Elle once creeps out of bed early in the morning and says she’s sure to be quiet when she goes past her grandfather’s window. I find it hard to believe that he didn’t have a big enough impact on her life for there to be next to zero details about him in this novel.

Jonas: Oh, Jonas. What a wonderful soul. What a traumatic thing for Elle and Jonas to have to experience together and then it’s the thing that drove them apart. Their story, while it fills the pages, is still another plot point that I wish could have been expanded. We know that Elle and Jonas shared a kiss as children and that they had feelings for each other before the big traumatic thing that happened became the Big Traumatic Thing. I find it hard to believe that it took them THIRTY-FIVE YEARS to finally let their physical feelings come to the forefront of their relationship. I know, I know, I was annoyed about the adultery! I know they were working through their past traumas together and separately in order to come to that point of being physical together. I just….I don’t know if I totally believe it! We understand that Jonas and Gina (his wife) have been friends with Elle and Peter (her husband) and their kids for years. They summer together on the Cape. Where is that part of the backstory?!

Despite these things I consider missing, I am going to recommend this book to so many people. Also, can we talk about the cover art? It’s beautiful and painted by the author’s stepfather.

Before you ask, without a spoiler, I think the ending is perfect.

Since this is partially a food blog: If anything, you should read this book for the meal descriptions, cooking-in-the-kitchen scenes, and how the family and friends come together to imbibe and enjoy each other’s company over delicious dinners and cocktails.

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