The Paper Palace – Miranda Cowley Heller (Penguin, $37)
reviewed by Louise Ward, Wardini Books
Imagine yourself at the bach, or in this case the camp your family has known as The Paper Palace since your grandfather made its walls from shredded cardboard. The lake feeds into the sea, the sand flies and mosquitoes are a menace, the heat is intense and the lake is cool. Family joys and dramas play out. This is where we meet Elle, on Cape Cod, and I hope her dramas are way more complex than yours.
This is a book peopled by rich, complex characters. Elle's mother, Wallace, is a grump: contrary, suffering no fools, judgmental and unapologetic. The only person who makes her laugh is Elle's husband, Peter, a chain smoking, languid Englishman with a dry sense of humour. Elle's three children rampage around the place, her sister Anna is a constant presence, as are the ghosts of past summers, and Elle's best friend, Jonas.
The story begins with the sudden, explosive turning point of Elle sleeping with Jonas. They are nearing 50 and this is the first time. Their story plays out through snippets of the past, returning to the present, a life lived with a great shadow above and between them. Their deep friendship, their love story, is anchored to a childhood tragedy and their lives have diverged and converged for decades.
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The absorbing nature of this story is created by finely tuned characterisation: Elle is hard on herself, not as guilty as she believes herself to be; Jonas is an enigma; Anna is more like her mother than she would admit; Peter is almost stereotypically British – a Hugh Grant with more backbone. The incident at the heart of their tale is morally ambiguous, leading the reader to soul search as much as the protagonists.
The Paper Palace is a story of lost innocence, what could have been and what still might be. It's a thoroughly engaging read, perfect for long summer days.