In The Paper Palace, by Miranda Cowley Heller, Elle begins an affair with her childhood best friend, Jonas, even though both are married. The intensity and passion of their affair sends Elle back through her childhood memories and family history, thinking about how she and Jonas met and how they were drawn together, even as children.
The story really takes two tracks, with one storyline moving backwards, through how Elle and Jonas got to that moment, and one storyline in intense real time, as Elle tries to decide what to do next. I was much more invested in the past story, describing how each action affected the next generation in the family, and how trying to avoid one trouble led the characters to something else. Elle’s family background is dark, with trauma and abuse, and some surprising moments of real love and affection. Some parts are intense, and basically need every trigger warning you can think of, but the story is ultimately about surviving abuse. We see how abuse and survival ripples out of years and generations of this family, and how that has created the extended family gathered in the summer home at the beginning of the novel.
This novel has all the adultery, scandal, WASPy quips and daydrinking in the moneyed rusticity of the family summer house that I just loved in Wild Game. Only The Paper Palace is fiction, so I didn’t have this awful, guilty feeling that these are real humans in their real lives. Wild Game was fascinating and twisted, but at the same time, I couldn’t fully enjoy it because I kept thinking that Malabar is a real person, and what if someone wrote an entire book about my mistakes?
Elle seems happily married at the start of The Paper Palace. Jonas is also married, but wife, Gina, is basically a non-entity. In the complicated family network of in-laws and exes and ex-stepparents, they’re not united in much, besides disliking Jonas’ wife, Gina. Apparently she’s too pretty and too young, and therefor everyone rolls their eyes whenever she talks and dismisses her. The dislike seemed realistic from Elle, with her unresolved crush on Jonas, but made the rest seem jerkish. A family who had harbored so many abusers and held so many secrets from each other and the outside world still couldn’t pretend to like someone who is **checks notes** pretty.
Jonas and Elle share a friendship with many secrets over the years. Jonas may be the only person who really knows Elle, which can be a powerful draw. The novel moves around, jumping between pivotal moments in Elle’s life. It’s slightly confusing in the beginning, with a wide cast of characters over many years, but the story of an intense, unusual bond becomes clear.
I found the ending of The Paper Palace deeply unsatisfying, and I’ve written more about why it just didn’t work for me, but don’t click that until you’ve read the book, since it’s completely filled with spoilers. If you’ve already read the book, though, please let me know what you thought about the ending!