BOOK REVIEW | The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller
This month, reviewer Alex Cottam explores The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller: an epic family drama set amid the hazy summer days of Cape Cod. A beach read of sorts, this intricately woven story comes with a darker edge that will keep you page-turning long into the night.
With its evocative prose, The Paper Palace dropped me straight into the feeling of a long, hot summer’s day. We follow Elle, whose family has spent their holidays in Cape Code for decades, living at The Paper Palace – a cheaply-made set of lodges by a beautiful lake, passed down through her family for generations. Cowley Heller’s rich prose makes you long for those sticky hot nights and drawn-out days which seem to last forever. I could have overindulged in the descriptions of New Hampshire and the setting of The Paper Palace for pages.
The storyline deals with the minutiae of Elle’s life, and how she is grappling between choosing her husband, Peter, or Jonas, her childhood best friend. Messy and nuanced, this family drama gripped me from the start, and was a compulsive read.
Through Elle’s narration within The Paper Palace, we build a picture of her life, and the decisions – both large and small – she and her family have made to date. The present-day narrative of the book takes place over 24 hours, and follows the aftermath of Elle and Jonas finally indulging their intimate feelings. We go back and forth between the present and the past to discover how Elle has landed in this situation, and why her and Jonas (her seeming soul-mate) have been torn apart by historic events. In some places pretty dark and bleak, The Paper Palace traces a comprehensive and elaborate family history.
You are suspended with the question: will she continue her happy life with Peter, or choose the life she has dreamed of with Jonas? This is a very believable love triangle, and is evenly weighted, which is unusual with this trope. The reader can completely empathise with why Elle would be willing to upheave her life for Jonas; but that doesn’t take away from the all encompassing love and care that she also has for Peter.
After finishing The Paper Palace, I was left reignited with my love of plotty books. There’s nothing better than sitting and immersing yourself in a read like this, completely getting to know characters inside and out. I would say marking this book as a beach read would be doing it a disservice to the complexity of it. It’s a read that comes with the sweet taste of summer, for sure, albeit with a side serving of grit.
Please be mindful: this book explores themes of sexual assault, rape and child loss, so if these topics are of a sensitive nature to you, perhaps this book won’t be for you.
Reviewer Alex Cottam is a lover of all things contemporary fiction who never likes to be without a book on the go. She lives on the South Coast, with a personal focus on living a slower lifestyle where possible.