Highly Recommended

The Paper Palace




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.


The Paper Palace is a great book about generational trauma, femininity, dysfunctional families, and how baggage can change the trajectory of one’s life. It read almost like an autobiography rather than a fiction piece.

We follow Elle, our main character who is challenging to like as some of the choices she makes in the book are quite questionable.


The Paper Palace is a piece meant for women- in the sense that it discusses topics only women can understand. It's a broad generalization but it is true, that these experiences are only experiences a woman could understand. From the dated idea that women are to listen to men without question, that they are lesser beings than men, that we should be quiet in the face of adversary- it showcases the true horrors of what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated world.

It’s pretty dark and graphic which may turn off a lot of readers. 

Please read the content warnings before reading this. It can be very triggering for many, especially with how graphic some of the scenes are. 

But I also appreciated that Heller was graphic with these scenes, not because they are enjoyable in some perverse way, but because it is so horrific- the idea that such things can happen is such a terrible thought and yet it must be said. 

These graphic scenes show how helpless young women or girls feel. The sense of helplessness is so prevalent. I felt so much for Wallace and Elle. They were completely broken by their circumstances, and the world just didn't seem like a place for them. 


Loved the structure of the book. It was so interesting, skipping between the present day and the past. We are shown the day of the incident straight from the bat- and god what a beginning. It immediately captures your attention and holds a sense of anticipation for the rest of the book.


We start immediately with infidelity and jump straight to the past. We go over a span of 50 years, from Elle’s grandmother to Wallace, to Elle’s past. Three women, whose life was molded by the men in their lives. And we slowly start to understand the dynamics of this family, and why it led them to make the decisions they eventually do take in the future.


Love the small moments of prose and description of the world around them. It lent a certain kind of beauty to the story's world, which acted as breaks between such dark and horrible happenings.


Everything happens calmly but it's intense and harrowing. Like there would be a statement that could be the most grotesque and disturbing thing ever, and in the next line, the characters are having lunch.


Elle’s life is completely determined by men and I don’t know if I liked that or if that just felt like such a character stunt. Her stepfather defined her, her stepbrother, then Jonas, and then Peter. I guess it does make sense because of the time period they are in, but I wish we saw more of Elle's personality beyond the trauma. 


I saw most readers were divided on whether Elle and Jonas’ love story was compelling or even believable. I think Heller captured the essence of teenage obsession, of how because Elle has never met a man who has not tried to use her, she becomes so entangled and obsessed with Jonas. He was the first to see her as more than just a woman but as a soul and as a young girl, she latched on to that. 


On Jonas’ end, we never go into his head so we never get to see what goes on in his mind but both of them constantly orbit around each other. They are like tangents, where they meet briefly before being pulled apart. Jonas’ obsession is a bit strange in the sense that we know he liked Elle as a young boy, that was obvious. But when they meet again, suddenly his feelings are ramped up to a max and he cannot bear to exist without Elle, despite abandoning her for camp. It's not really 'abandoning', in the context of a child running away from a horrible act he has committed, but it's hard to buy into the idea that Jonas is so obsessed with Elle when we see none of that in their childhood.


I liked the ambiguous ending. I usually don’t but this one made sense. It doesn’t give a concrete answer, but does give us enough clues to see which guy, Peter or Jonas, Elle chooses.


People who say the ending is too open-ended, have to read more thoroughly! It's very obvious who Elle picks in the end. It's Jonas. 


I might get some people who are like, “What? No, she definitely picked Peter.” Uh no. 


Heller states she didn’t decide who Elle picks until the very end. The penultimate paragraph is the moment where Elle makes her choice. Peter was clearly the chosen one up until that point, with Elle wanting security and a path that isn’t reminiscent of her past. She tells Peter that he is the only man she loves and states she is Peter’s. She believes she has chosen Peter and yet her thoughts still drift to Jonas even after deciding on Peter. 


But the moment she decides is when she sees a storm and asks Peter to watch it with her. To me, Elle represents all bodies of water. Right now the storm represents Elle. Its water, it's violent and carries monstrous things in the wake of her decision between Peter and Jonas. Peter won’t wake up and refuses to see it. And while he sleeps she remembers Jonas talking about how hummingbirds fly backwards and forwards, and Elle wishes she could fly back. At that moment, the choice is almost made and the tide has almost shifted to Jonas’ favour. Peter will never see her as she is, and she is desperate for him to. To see her and reassure her that he’ll still love her. 


She asks Peter one more time to go for her swim, to “End this.” But he refuses again. So Elle goes to the pond, the pond where her pain begins, and sees Jonas waiting for her. He knows she’ll always come back to him because that's just how they are. Her pond is still and will inhabit both of them now. There is now no more rage and questioning, she has chosen, and the water is silent.


Even if it's not clear if she’ll leave Peter, 100% the only other option is she will continue to cheat on Peter with Jonas. She can never leave him, and he will never leave her.


Now time for the delusions! I normally note down all my thoughts on Notion before creating a coherent review, but I have so many theories about that ending!


Firstly, I feel potentially, Peter for Elle was just an escape. A man who did not know of her past and was everything she could have ever wanted. But that does not necessarily mean the person she needed. He entered her life at a vulnerable point, making it easier for her to run away from everything. Essentially Peter is an escape, while Jonas is the truth she is running from.


Also! In case the book wasn’t enough to convince you, Jonas, always the choice Elle was going to make, Miranda Cowley Heller states in her acknowledgments- 


‘“When I was in my teens and first attempting to write fiction, my grandfather Malcolm Cowley gave me a piece of advice that I have carried with me: the only thing you need to know, he said, is that every good story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, with the end foreshadowed in the beginning.”


In the first paragraph of the book, quote, 


‘“The world should listen then, as I am listening now.” He read it so beautifully. “For Anna.” And we all sat there, spellbound, remembering her. I could look at him and nothing else for eternity and be happy. I could listen to him, my eyes closed, feel his breath and his words wash over me, time and time and time again. It is all I want.”


In the end, Elle is essentially her father. She hates him and calls him out for choosing a love that hurts his children, but now she has also made that choice. To run away with a man that her children, by the way, are also very attached to. The betrayal not only Peter would feel, but the children as well. 


I love that this ending can be interpreted in so many different ways. I love a book that makes you think and creates spaces for discussions like this one has. Looking forward to more books by Ms Heller.

Book Details

Highly Recommended
Published: 06 July 2021
Page Count: 389 pages

Highly Recommended

Content Warning Summary

  • Rape
  • Sexual Assault
  • Child Abuse