No more regrets for what I haven’t done. Now only regrets for what I have done.
The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller is a story that expands on a pivotal 24 hours in our narrator Elle Bishop’s present, by slowly revealing 50 years of her past that starkly illuminate how she came to this point. Past actions, mistakes, regrets, secrets and passions come to a head in one fleeting moment, during her annual holiday at the family summer home in the Back Woods of Cape Cod, which will change her life forever.
This is a story full of complicated and flawed characters, who have endured varying degrees of trauma and hardships. There are trigger warnings to be aware of when reading this – mainly sexual abuse and violence – but many of the characters have also been marked by growing up in broken and/or dysfunctional families, surrounded by weak and disappointing adults who consistently let the children around them down; where marriages seem to change with the seasons, and be marred by infidelity and betrayal. Heller is a master of character development, and her key figures emerge as fully rounded individuals, each with their own history; she also deftly conjures enough redeeming moments of tenderness between various characters to lift the novel beyond the many moments of sadness and tragedy within it. Heller beautifully and authentically develops the relationship between Elle and her sister Anna as the novel progresses; two very different women, who have both endured trauma in their lives, yet share a deep and close bond despite the years of sibling arguments. Elle herself is a complex character, whose behaviour and decisions often leave us feeling torn between frustration and compassion.
The novel is really well paced and plotted; past and present chapters are often linked through some small connecting detail that creates a natural flow despite jumping timelines, and the almost hourly breakdown of the present chapters really serves to drive momentum and heighten the tension, especially as the novel is drawing to a close.
Heller vividly conjures the dilapidated old summer home by the pond, seasonally reclaimed by the nature around it; this atmospheric place of shimmering water and shady forest, that the characters inevitably return to as a space of calm, familiarity, and commune with nature, despite it’s shoddy state and the dark secrets it has harboured over the years.
This is a story about long-standing love and desire; about the shared burden of secrets, and the secrets that bind people; about the parts of themselves people hide in case anyone who saw them might never be able to love them again; about how the past, no matter how we try to hide it, will inevitably seep into the present, driving and shaping decisions and actions; about the regrets people harbour, and the decisions they make to try to right these regrets. This was a book that gripped me, and grew on me, the more I read; it became something different, and more profound, to what I had first anticipated. It’s so full of sorrow and tragedy endured but this is what ultimately makes it such a moving read.
Book 6 reviewed as part of the #20BooksOfSummer22 reading challenge hosted by Cathy at 746books.com.
Thank you so much to the lovely Suzie at suzie_reads_a_lot over on Instagram who sent this my way as part of a book swap.
The Paper Palace was first published in 2021 by Riverhead Books in the US and by Viking in the UK. My copy was published by Penguin in 2022.
Miranda Cowley Heller was raised in New York. After graduating from Harvard she became a books editor, before working for a decade as Head of Drama Series at HBO. She divides her time between Los Angeles, London and Cape Cod. The Paper Palace is her first novel, and was a number 1 New York Times bestseller in the US, a Sunday Times bestseller in the UK and was longlisted for the Women’s Prize.
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