Books & Literature

Book Review: The Paper Palace, by Miranda Cowley Heller

LITERARY FICTION: A magnificent literary debut about the myriad loves that make up a life.

An outstanding work of literary fiction.

Elle Bishop has always loved coming to the house her grandfather built in the Back Woods of Cape Cod. Nicknamed “the Paper Palace” due to its unusual interior building materials, it has borne witness to her life for over 50 years. She is visiting once again, along with her wonderful husband, three children, and her irascible mother. Also nearby are their friends Jonas and Gina, and Jonas’s equally difficult mother.

In the space of a day, Elle’s life will be turned upside down, she will question much of what she believed about herself, and she will be forced to make a heartbreaking decision.

The Paper Palace takes place simultaneously within those 24 hours, and over 50 years. We wake with Elle at 6.30 am on the 1st of August, and walk with her to 6.30 am the next day. Interspersed with various times of the day are snapshots of her past, and that of her mother: 1966, December, New York City; 1989, February, London; 1979, July, Vermont. Heller gradually paints a picture of Elle and the terrible, life-changing secret, she shares with her best friend Jonas. It is a work of psychological brilliance and subtlety.

This is also unashamedly a love story, and a dual love-story at that: the simple slow-burn love of her husband Peter, and the trauma-bonded, complex love, of Jonas. Heller also delivers sex that is passionate, primal, beautiful, sometimes ugly, sometimes highly confronting, but always authentic.

It is also about love for place. Heller herself has a home in Cape Cod, and The Paper Palace sparkles with her obvious adoration for the area.

Water looms large in this story: Elle swims in the pond and at the beach. Sailing is a regular activity, and her relationship with Jonas starts and is bonded by the watery places. Water serves as background, as symbol, and as a character in its own right. Elle’s mother Wallace says to her, near the end of the book:

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

This masterfully constructed novel contains myriad delights. The opening paragraph alone is an object-lesson in descriptive writing. Within these pages sit grief, guilt, love, complex family relationships, confronting and difficult topics, and adult eroticism, alongside an almost visceral sense of place.

Miranda Cowley Heller is a welcome new voice in contemporary literary fiction. The Paper Palace is a triumph.

Reviewed by Tracey Korsten
Twitter: @TraceyKorsten

Distributed by: Penguin Books Australia
Released: July 2021
RRP: $32.99

This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not Glam Adelaide.

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