About the Book:
A story of summer, secrets, love, and lies: in the course of a singular day on Cape Cod, one woman must make a life-changing decision that has been brewing for decades.
“This house, this place, knows all my secrets.”
It is a perfect July morning, and Elle, a fifty-year-old happily married mother of three, awakens at “The Paper Palace”—the family summer place which she has visited every summer of her life. But this morning is different: last night Elle and her oldest friend Jonas crept out the back door into the darkness and had sex with each other for the first time, all while their spouses chatted away inside. Now, over the next twenty-four hours, Elle will have to decide between the life she has made with her genuinely beloved husband, Peter, and the life she always imagined she would have had with her childhood love, Jonas, if a tragic event hadn’t forever changed the course of their lives. As Heller colors in the experiences that have led Elle to this day, we arrive at her ultimate decision with all its complexity. Tender yet devastating, The Paper Palace considers the tensions between desire and dignity, the legacies of abuse, and the crimes and misdemeanors of families.
What will I do now that I finished this extraordinary book?! I was caught up immediately in the life of Elle and her insanely dysfunctional family dynamics. Set in the woods of Cape Cod, this winding and complex story is set both in the present over the course of 24 hours, and in the past, as Elle deals with the consequences of her feelings for her lifelong friend Jonas and her marriage to the brilliant, charming and loving Peter.
The setting here is part of the story, almost a separate character, as in many of my favorite books. You can almost hear the birds’ songs, see the late summer sun setting and hear the waters of the pond outside the family compound where Elle, her sister Anna and their mother Wallace have spent every summer for decades. Called “The Paper Palace” because the cabins are so old yet so charming on the outside, the family’s summer home is woven into the very fabric of Elle’s life.
Elle has grown up a child of the very hands-off parenting of the Sixties and Seventies, when kids were sent out to play alone for hours on end, put on buses alone and generally left to fend for themselves. Elle’s mother Wallace will do almost anything to please her husbands, and this attitude will lead to many of the poor parenting decisions that will haunt Elle for most of her life. Wallace has a biting, sarcastic wit and her cocktail-filled evenings lend much color to this incredible story.
“Unhappy people are always more interesting.”
Elle and Jonas have always had a close and complicated relationship with feelings for each other that transcend time. Life intervenes, however, and Elle and Jonas end up married to different people. What I love about the author’s writing is that all of these characters are flawed, real, genuine human beings. No one is demonized and Elle is both in love with her husband and also cares for Jonas’s wife Gina.
The story opens with one of Elle and Wallace’s usual confrontations. Wallace comes from a dysfunctional family as well, and her backstory is both fascinating and horrifying at the same time.
“In my mother’s family, divorce is just a seven letter word. Letters that could easily be replaced with I’m bored or bad luck.”
Elle is drawn to Jonas in a way that is different from her relationship with Peter, but yet she love Peter and her children and does not want to repeat her parents’ mistakes. How will Jonas and Elle’s reunion affect their respective families? Their choices will be life-changing, for sure. As much as I was on the edge of my seat for the present day events, I was captivated and enthralled by the flashbacks of Elle’s entire life.
The author has written some of the most unforgettable characters I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Jonas, Elle, Anna, Wallace, the repulsive Conrad, and even Elle’s remote and bungling father will all stay with me for a very long time. A violent tragedy haunts Elle into her adulthood and her intense feelings for Jonas follow her even as she marries Peter: “I wonder if he would love me if he could see inside my head — the pettiness, the dirty linen of my thoughts, the terrible things I have done.”
This is a breathtaking novel. I loved the audiobook version and the narrator did a perfect job of balancing the large cast of characters. The elusive feelings of summer and of childhood are all captured in this amazingly poignant story and I can’t recommend it highly enough!
“Does letting go mean losing everything you? Or does it mean gaining everything you never had?”