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  • Writer's pictureThe Bossy Bookworm

Review of The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

The Paper Palace is atmospheric and often disturbing. I didn't understand many of the characters' motivations or reasoning so didn't feel connected to their situations.

Fifty-year-old Elle is in her happy place--the house where she's spent a whole life of summers.

But something is different this visit. Elle and her oldest friend Jonas have just crossed a line, betraying their spouses--and they may have set into motion a shift that could change everything for all of them, forever.

Elle has an enormous decision to make: stick with her contented, comfortable current life, the husband she loves, and her kids--or upset everything to explore the fantasy of what might have been with her childhood friend and the young love they never explored.

Miranda Cowley Heller digs into secrets, lies, abuse, desire, shocking truths, complications, and love, and delves into the stories of various members of the families she reveals in The Paper Palace.

The Paper Palace is often disturbing. Molestation, sexual abuse, and rape occur repeatedly, and the detailed descriptions of the abuse somehow felt exploitative. The sex that occurs within loving relationships also felt charged, full of control and power plays, as well as oddly specific (the pinching of delicate body parts, descriptions of force, and tugging on hair, for example).

Parent (and grandparent) figures’ seemingly willful obtusity, sometimes cruel ineptitude, neglect and lack of protection (as well as lack of affection), and missteps--and the terrible consequences of all of this for their young charges--were tough to repeatedly read about.

The characters' duplicitous actions were difficult for me to empathize with; their romantic plights felt largely self-made and self-indulgent. It occurred to me that it's possible that Heller meant to freeze the characters in question within the stunted emotional states of their youths because of the traumas they endured then. The characters feel frequently passive, allowing events and circumstances to happen to them, then are buffeted along by the momentum occurring around them.

I was distracted by some moments that felt conveniently inconvenient and seemed to primarily exist in order to drive the plot: a character reads part of a diary that would illuminate the grave truth behind two horrifying secrets...but inexplicably doesn't continue reading enough pages to understand the identity of the culprit. The diary author also doesn't clarify the situation upon finding out about this misunderstanding. In another case, a character trusts a proven-to-be-untrustworthy, aggressively unhelpful go-between to deliver an ultimatum to a family member, then simply imagines that the message was delivered. Instances like these didn't make sense to me as a reader.

There were also a few odd inconsistencies in specifics; for example, “I’ve never been able to make myself throw up, no matter how hard I try" follows some pages after a conflicting detail I remembered because it was so specific and so willfully acted out by the character, “I put my finger down my throat, force myself to throw up into the garbage can any food she brings me."

Characters are often lying, feeling betrayed, or actively in fear. Yet the characters felt largely lacking in introspection or even action. It was tough to feel as though I understood any of the characters’ motivations or even their personalities.

Oddly timed pronouncements (I loved my husband; I idolized my sister) seemed like shortcuts that avoided providing what I was yearning for, which was to understand why the characters were making sometimes destructive, sometimes helplessly hopeless, sometimes actively unhealthy decisions.

Yet the settings were wonderfully vivid, and The Paper Palace felt somewhat like atmospheric meditations on place that were linked by various tragedies, horrors, and disappointments large and small.

One tiny detail with no bearing on anything significant that nevertheless kept jumping out at me: almost all--possibly every single one--of the copious picnic sandwiches mentioned throughout the book were noted as involving either mayonnaise (including peanut butter sandwiches) or butter. So many moist sandwiches!

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

This is Miranda Cowley Heller's first book.

I was trying to think of other atmospheric novels that center around affairs at the beach, but the book that kept coming to mind was the memoir Wild Game by Adrienne Brodeur, about Brodeur's narcissistic mother's ongoing affair and how she brought her daughter into her complicated web of lies and cover-ups. I mentioned Wild Game in the Greedy Reading List Six More Illuminating Memoirs to Lose Yourself In.

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