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The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller
Published by Riverhead Books on January 6, 2021
my rating: 4.5 stars
Goodreads avg: 3.88 (as of 2022-04-17)
And I thought: now there is no turning back. No more regrets for what I haven’t done. Now only regrets for what I have done. I love him, I hate myself; I love myself, I hate him. This is the end of a long story.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the blurb: Elle awakens at her family’s summer home the morning after sleeping with her childhood best friend and over the next 24 hours has to decide whether she wants to leave her husband. What I didn’t expect was for this to span decades, generations. While the story itself does take place over only a single day, much of it is filled in with flashbacks that slowly fill in the context until we understand more fully what Elle’s decision truly entails.
I caution readers to take care before picking this up, and to look up the content warnings. Both Elle’s history and her mother’s contain child sexual abuse and rape as well as parental abuse and neglect. I found the reading experience intense and graphic, but not needlessly so. Heller skillfully shows the aftermath of trauma and how tightly it manages to grip you.
The writing in this is truly beautiful, I marveled at the author’s way with words and was shocked to discover this was her debut novel. I cared so deeply for Elle and Jonas and was genuinely invested in their lives both together and apart. I know reading about cheating can be a dealbreaker for some people and while I don’t think cheating is a good thing, love can be complex and I think this was handled realistically and gracefully. Elle is torn between the life she thinks she should have with the husband she truly loves and the life she truly should have had with the man she has been connected to for decades. This isn’t a simple or easy choice and Heller didn’t paint it as such. I also found it interesting that many readers found the conclusion open-ended, I was positive I knew what she had chosen so other reviews surprised me!
My one issue is with a reveal that freed Elle in a way I felt she should have been freed from the start. I can’t go any deeper without spoilers but I will say that while I had no issue with the reveal itself, I didn’t particularly love Elle’s reaction to it.
All in all, I found this to be a beautiful yet devastating novel that will stick with me for years to come. I really look forward to what Heller puts out next and am glad this was selected for the Women’s Prize Longlist, which is what prompted me to read it.