Friday, July 2, 2021

Book Review: The Paper Palace

By Jami Denison

There’s supposed to be something magical about first loves. So many high-school sweethearts have reunited via Facebook (often to the consternation of their spouses) that psychologists are studying whether a first love imprints on a person in a way that subsequent relationships simply can’t. Even if the attraction has more to do with what might have been, or the nostalgia for love minus the stress of work, mortgage payments, and children, memories of that crush can turn otherwise sensible adults back into love-sick children.

In Miranda Cowley Heller’s lush debut, The Paper Palace, Elle and Jonas were never truly boyfriend and girlfriend. As children, they spent summers on Cape Cod together, with Jonas crushing on the three-years-older Elle. But just when Elle finally saw Jonas as more than a friend, an accident tears them apart. Reuniting as adults, already married to other people, can they resist the pull of their childhood attraction?

The Paper Palace (the nickname for Elle’s family’s summer retreat) follows two first-person narrative tracks: the first takes place in a single day, the day after Elle and Jonas have consummated their relationship, in the woods mere yards away from their respective families. But the majority of the book tracks Elle’s entire life and the events that shaped it, starting with her grandmother’s second marriage to a man who sexually abused Elle’s mother and uncle. One of the most gripping paragraphs in the book is this: 

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Elle,” she had said as I stood at the kitchen sink, fuming over a pile of dishes. “You have to wash a plate… you don’t get a lipstick… I had to give my stepfather blow jobs. All Austin had to do was masturbate him. What can I tell you? Life’s not fair.” 

While the blurbs and reviews concentrate on the connection between Elle and Jonas, it’s this history of abuse and neglect that truly dominates the book. Elle’s grandmother blamed Elle’s mother Wallace for her abuse as a small child. Wallace becomes a neglectful mother herself, marrying (then divorcing) a weak-willed man who continually puts his daughters’ needs second to whichever woman he’s currently seeing. Wallace is desperate to hold onto her second husband, even allowing the man’s vile son to live with them after the boy’s own mother kicked him out. As a result, as a young teenager, Ellen decides her mother’s happiness is more important than her own. 

The Paper Palace takes place mostly in sand and water, but it’s not a beach read. As Elle matter-of-factly recounts years of neglect and abuse, of the trusted adults in her life putting their needs before hers again and again, I wanted to throw my Kindle against the wall. Readers who are survivors of abuse may be triggered by the events in the novel. It is a tough, emotional read. 

As an adult, torn between her own children and her desire for Jonas, Elle seems to want to be a better parent than her mother and father, who never thought twice about how their messy relationships affected their kids. As the book progressed, however, I did not find Elle and Jonas’s story to be one of tragic lost love. Rather, he seemed to me to be yet another entitled male in Elle’s life, reacting with anger and passive aggression when she tried to set boundaries. I did not find myself rooting for them to be together. 

With its female author and female protagonist, The Paper Palace will be marketed to women as women’s fiction or even as a summer read. But I hope the women who read it will then pass it along to the men in their lives. It’s an up-close and personal look at how women respond to abuse in the moment and years afterward. It’s a story that women have heard, have lived. Men need to hear it, too.  

Thanks to Riverhead Books for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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