by Miranda Cowley Heller
Viking (Penguin), 2021
On the front cover of The Paper Palace (hardback edition), Nick Hornby is quoted as saying: ‘It’s been ages since I was so absorbed in a contemporary novel. I loved it.’ Being generally sceptical of marketing, I immediately thought, ‘the jury’s still out. I like to form my own opinions, thank you very much.’
But unusually, I completely agree. I loved this book. I’m in half a mind to reread it immediately, and I don’t think that very often. I already miss being in the Cape Cod summerhouse—because I really did feel like that; Cowley Heller’s masterful writing drew me completely into Elle’s world.
The prose is juicy with close detail, yet the main characters are not described or even introduced in any meaningful way. As a consequence, the reader feels they are experiencing the world just as the protagonist (Elle) does. Elle describes the sounds, smells and sensations that surround her—but why would she describe what her mother looks like? Equally, the other characters are introduced only very briefly, so although the reader needs to be on their toes at the beginning, it adds to the sense that this is someone talking through their memories.
But there is much more to this book that just its visceral, enchanting detail. Flitting between the present and the protagonist’s relevant memories, the skilful narrative suggests to the reader the meaning that Elle has made of her experiences, how they have shaped her, and the decisions she has made, all told through a snapshot moment of Elle’s life. It describes how we are all a product of our upbringing, our relationships, and our formative memories. This is a powerful book about our everyday decisions, the way our parents shape us, and how what seems like fate is often actually a culmination of our messy experiences of the world. It demonstrates the power that others have in our lives, and how our reactions to unforeseen events have their part to play in creating our life narrative. Genuinely, I believe this novel would make a great film.
So what decision does Elle finally make as a result of her moment of weakness? Was it indeed a mistake? You’ll have to read it yourself to find out.