On a perfect August morning, Elle Bishop heads out for a swim in the pond below ‘The Paper Palace’—her family’s holiday home in Cape Cod. As she dives beneath the water she relives the passionate encounter she had the night before, against the side of the house that knows all her darkest secrets, while her husband and mother chatted to their guests inside….
So begins a story that unfolds over 24 hours and 50 years, as Elle’s shocking betrayal leads her to a life-changing decision—and an ending you won’t be able to stop thinking about.
“There are some swims you do regret, Eleanor. The problem is, you never know until you take them.”
There was much that I wanted to dislike about Elle Bishop, our narrator for The Paper Palace. She is very privileged and somewhat entitled as a character: she arrives at the same family retreat in the woods around Cape Cod with her British husband and her three children, staying with her irascible mother. They spend their time indolently: socialising, drinking, swimming in the pond, bemoaning the arrival of others who are not proper “Woods People”.
I found her difficult to engage with in the opening part of the novel which occurs over the space of the twenty-four hours after Elle finally “fucked my oldest friend”, Jonas, against the side of the titular Paper Palace where her husband and his wife were still drinking. It’s an encounter we only see the aftermath of, and only through Elle’s narrative, but it sounds passionate and carnal:
Jonas came at me in the dark, shoving himself into me, my head pressed hard against cold cinder block, unearthly, gasping, a beautiful pain, dress pushed up around my waist, and I felt my entire life coming together inside of me.
It is the sort of encounter that might be expected of a millenial protagonist so it was wonderful to see that Elle was older – Generation X, I suppose, if we continue with those nebulous terms – born in the 1970s with a family and distinctly, unapologetically passionate as – well – a middle-aged woman in an affluent middle class family.
Interspersed with that 24 hour period, Heller shows us Elle’s somewhat chaotic childhood with her parents and her sister. We see them managing her parents’ divorce and her repeated disappointment by her father which led to their estrangement, her relationships with her grandparents and step-parents and – crucially – her step-siblings. In fact, Elle gives us an unvarnished and unusually frank account of her life in her body through the novel from her inserting tampons, peeing in the sand, having sex, being violated.
On one hand, these flashbacks do not feel entirely connected to the prime narrative: characters appear within them who never re-appear, who do not seem connected to the core. There are some: Jonas, of course, whom we meet as a child, and the other side of the love triangle, Peter, whom we meet in London where Elle is “getting a postgraduate degree in French Literature at Saint Mary”; Elle’s mother, Wallace, who is delightfully irascible and prickly, distant as a parent whose “blindness – her total lack of self-examination – is a gift”, is a persistent presence. Others were hugely powerful because they cast a shadow over Elle’s present: the tragedy of her sister Anna and the trauma of her step-brother Conrad who “ruined everything” deepen and swell out Elle’s characterisation. To be fair, once that history was explored, Elle turned into a genuine and compelling figure – in fact, one of the most rounded, nuanced and vivid characters that I have come across. So much more than that first impression I had of her.
One of the delights in the novel is its characterisation which Heller seems to achieve effortlessly: there’s a wealth of character in Peter’s dedication to socks-and-sandals, the “Englishman’s uniform abroad”. His parents, likewise, who are “very posh”, are wonderfully depicted: they “hunt and have a Pimm’s Cup with lunch [and] take brisk tweedy walks across the moors” and who “like you…. Very much, for an American”. It is delightful – perhaps because I am a Brit – to read of their “mysterious Upper-Class Brit code of manners. As much as I’ve tried to learn its rules, whenever I’m with them I have the feeling that I am making a faux pas. And worse, I don’t know what the faux pas is”.
It is strange, though, that alongside the ease with which character can be introduced, there were other places which seemed artificial and forced, where I could perhaps see why the author included them, but it did not feel organic. Two moments that stood out. Peter first meets Elle as she is being mugged and he casually whacks the assailant around the head with a tire iron (which felt like a very American phrase considering the ease with which Heller slips in British dialect) before suggesting that “We might want to fuck off out of here…. He’ll be a bit cross when he comes to”. Similarly, when Elle confronts a burglar and Peter threatens him with a knife, “tall, menacing… terrifying, powerful… a wolf transformed by the full moon. Neither of these moments feel consistent with the urbane, self-deprecating, diffident scrambled-egg-cooking, socks-and-sandals-wearing man we see chatting so easily with Wallace. Yes, one of the themes of the novel is perhaps our capacity to do dark things despite our outward control and these moments feed into that… but they felt conscious and forced to me.
Heller’s language though is the glory of the book: her prose is luminous, and particularly when describing both the landscape – especially the beloved landscape of the Cape Cod Back Woods – and Elle’s internal landscape, her feelings for and yearning for Jonas.
On the far side of the pond, beyond the break of pine and shrub oak, the ocean is furious, roaring. It must be carrying a storm in its belly from somewhere out at sea. But here, at the edge of the pond, the air is honey-still.
And the beautiful thing is how easily and readily that landscape can reflect Elle’s character, her stormy passions beneath or perhaps parallel with her calmness, her sea and her pond.
In conclusion, therefore, what appeared to be a story focussed on that most hackneyed of tropes, the love triangle, became something more. It was for me an extended and moving and beautiful character study of Elle Bishop, and it was a genuine pleasure to hear her voice and to see the world through her eyes.
What I Liked
- The wonderful ease with which Heller creates vivid and realistic characters.
- Elle, who was so muh more than the privileged entitled woman she appeared to be in the first part.
- Wallace, Elle’s mother, and her outrageous egocentricity and self-absorption.
- The descriptions of the place and landscape.
- The descriptions of Elle’s own internal landscape, her longings and feelings described in wonderfully sensual language.
What Could Have Been Different
- Elements of the story could have felt a little less forced and conscious.
5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Paper Palace, Miranda Cowley Helller”
I haven’t heard of this book before, but wow, you sure wrote a terrific review.
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Thank you so much! I only read it because it was on the Women’s Prize longlist if I’m honest, and it also felt very summery! Much better than I’d hoped!
Not really ‘my genre’, but this review makes it sound positively tantalising!
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Not really my genre either – but that’s why I love following various book prizes, to find great books I wouldn’t normally pick up!
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