‘The Paper Palace’ – Miranda Cowley Heller

The Paper Palace is a book I’ve heard so much about, with so many positive reviews, and though there were parts of it that I enjoyed I would be hesitant to recommend this to people.

The book opens with us learning that Elle has just had sex with her childhood friend Jonas, though their respective families are inside the holiday home they have visited every summer. We don’t know how this came about or why, and I was expecting the story to focus on trying to explain how this even came to pass. It does, but it takes a very long and winding route to take us there.

With no context to this incident it is hard to feel sympathy for the characters. If they have been such close friends for so long I spent most of the book wondering why they’d never discussed their feelings beforehand. What we come to see – eventually – is that they were dealing with a lot of other things that certainly will have impacted on their behaviour.

Elle’s family background is complicated. While I do not want to bury my head in the sand, I found the focus on child abuse that features throughout the book concerning. We see instances of abuse happening in a number of families, yet nobody seems to recognise that is happening and those perpetuating it don’t ever seem to face any consequences for their repulsive behaviour. The detached way in which some of these instances was recounted felt quite authentic, a coping mechanism, but I really struggled to read about these children developing very unhealthy coping strategies.

The split narrative did not help me to feel engaged by the story. It felt elusive, and I found it hard to warm to any of the main characters. Jonas could have spoken up earlier, as could Elle, about their feelings and it is cruel to be toying with the lives/emotions of others – even if they are unaware of it – as they try to work out what to do. The closing stages of the book were, for me, infuriating. Apparently the author said it was clear who Elle choseā€¦perhaps this is a cue for me to reread it again because I genuinely could not fathom out what was going on.