Saturday, August 27, 2022

Review: The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

Do you remember your first love? The person you thought you were meant to be with for all time? What broke you up? Do you ever second guess the life you've gone on to lead without them, the relationship you've built, the family you've created? Would you reconnect with this person? More importantly, would you cheat on your spouse with this person? This is just a small sampling of the questions swirling through Miranda Cowley Heller's novel The Paper Palace. The bigger question, perhaps, is what drives main character Elle, in so many of her decisions, and what is right and what is wrong on a grander scale.

Elle, Peter, and their three children are at the Back Woods, the family camp compound that has been a part of Elle's life forever. She's spent a lifetime of summers at this seemingly idyllic retreat. It holds the memory of her first love, her deep love of her sister, and many wonderful times, but it also holds the memory of the neglect and abuse she endured as she grew up. Opening the morning after a transgression she's spent a lifetime working towards, the novel moves back and forth between specific times in Elle's current day and her unspooling past. It is also broken into five sections: Elle, Jonas, Peter, This Summer, and Today, but all of the sections are narrated in the first person by Elle and the novel as a whole is centered on Elle's interiority, how she is torn between the love of her childhood friend, Jonas, and her husband and father of her children, Peter. She has a long and complicated history with Jonas and he knows the darkest parts of her but she has built a good life and wonderful family with Peter.

The writing here is quite beautiful, visual, and sensory, and it evokes the Back Woods wonderfully. It makes sense that Elle would face her personal conundrum in the place she is both the most comfortable and uncomfortable. The long tale of her past, including the trauma, rape, and sexual abuse she endured, are inextricably woven together with her friendship and eventual love of Jonas but their actual connection isn't fleshed out enough to make the years delayed infidelity understandable. To be fair, none of the characters were engaging enough that the reader cares about their interactions with each other, making Elle's question of whether to stay with her husband or to leave him for Jonas less gripping than it might have otherwise been. The novel tackles a lot through the lens of marriage and divorce but it also addresses some pretty taboo subjects (incest, rape, ongoing sexual abuse, neglect) and the ways that these traumas impact someone for their entire life. All of this is believable but somehow, it was still hard to connect with the novel as a whole. The end is ambiguous in a way that you can argue either outcome, which really mirrors the entirety of the novel and as such is probably quite appropriate. This is a very polarizing novel and it is does get rather graphic so while readers might want to read it to decide for themselves, know that some scenes will really disturb some people.

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