Like many of Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club picks, The Paper Palace by former head of drama series at HBO, Miranda Cowley Heller quickly became the book of the moment when it was released back in July.
The novel follows a woman named Elle, who has finally given into her desire for her childhood friend Jonas after decades of friendship and secrets. Both Elle and Jonas are married to other people, but their shared history (told in a series of flashbacks) holds much weight. And by the end of the novel, the reader will be wondering whether their actions are infidelity, or fate.
The reader should be warned going into this novel that it contains a lot of heavy subject matter. Cowley Heller seems to have taken Vonnegut’s edict that a writer should make their main character as miserable as possible to heart. Right from her birth, Elle is subject to medical crises, her parents unhappiness and subsequent awful new spouses, and much, much worse. I wondered at times if all of these traumatic experiences were really necessary for the book to move forward – for example, Elle’s botched operation as a baby seemed to hold very little relevance later in the book.
The Paper Palace does not feel like an overly long read, but it could perhaps have benefited from some pruning, if just to give the reader a break from all of the heaviness it contains. Midway through the book, I found myself needing to put it down, because what was happening to Elle was too dark, and I just needed to stop for a break.
The novel is structured in a series of flashbacks interspersed between scenes in the present day. The present day sections are all part of the same couple of days, in which Elle and her family, and Jonas and his wife Gina are staying on the Cape, where Elle’s family holiday home (known as The Paper Palace because of the paper-like material that it is made of) is located.
Elle’s memories of her own life, as well as the details that she remembers of her parents’ and grandparents’, are supposed to build a picture of everything that had led up to the decision she now needs to make – whether to stay with loyal husband and father, Peter, or whether to give in to a long repressed love she has felt for Jonas, which events from their shared past have prevented her from acting upon.
The flashbacks are tightly controlled and often shown as short, but effective moments in time, rather than nostalgic indulgences. The reader is moved through half a century or more of history quickly, and just as quickly, begins to build a complex portrait of an extremely unhappy family. The real strength of the novel lies in its depth of characterisation.
One thing that was irksome about the book was that at time, its language could be quite overblown, erring on the side of pretentious. These moments are rare, but when they crop up, they reminded me that I was reading about the lives and problems of quite privileged people. Speaking with a friend who had read this book, she mentioned that this felt like it harked back to the style of early-twentieth century American writers, so perhaps this will not be a problem for all readers. Personally, I felt that the whole thing had a cinematic air; given the author’s background, this is unsurprising. I could quite easily see this novel being turned into a Big Little Lies style production.
Don’t be fooled by the big yellow Reese Witherspoon logo on the cover of this book. It is not a sunshine-filled summer holiday beach read. Read it with your book club, and be prepared for the darkness within.