I first heard of The Paper Place a while back as it was selected for Reece’s Book club in July 2021. I was curious about it as the synopsis is intriguing, so I added it to my reading list, but unfortunately it got buried under my many other reads. In April, someone from Viking books offered me a copy, ahead of its paperback launch in May and I jumped at the opportunity to read it. It felt like the perfect book to get back into reading after a month away from books. Here’s the blub…
On a perfect August morning, Elle Bishop heads out for a swim in the pond below ‘The Paper Palace’ – her family’s holiday home in Cape Cod. As she dives beneath the water she relives the passionate encounter she had the night before, against the side of the house that knows all her darkest secrets, while her husband and mother chatted to their guests inside…
So begins a story that unfolds over twenty-four hours and fifty years, as Elle’s shocking betrayal leads her to a life-changing decision.
The story is told in two timelines, and cleverly encompasses the events of a day, with the memories of a lifetime, that builds up to an intriguing ending. Our Protagonist, Elle, has the previous night cheated on her handsome husband with her childhood best friend Jonas. Now, as she prepares for the day ahead, including a picnic in the beach with her mother, her husband and children and Jonas and his wife Gina, Elle recalls the events of the night before, along with her own history and childhood, and how those memories inform her choice on what to do post her infidelity.
In some ways this book feels like its written for the screen. I can imagine how each scene cuts into the next, and as such its not complicated and is predictable in many ways. It does deal with difficult themes, such as generational trauma, child abuse and gender roles, but not in a complex way, it felt more theatrical than realistic in some places, and some storylines felt convenient rather than necessary.
We learn Elle has a difficult relationship with her mother early on. This triggers a memory of her own childhood and a backstory about her grandmother, explaining to the reader why her mother is cold and calculating. Although some of this is quite trite, I always appreciate some historical context and there’s nothing like generational trauma to create a really messed up lead character. The only thing is Elle isn’t messed up. She’s practically perfect, an ideal leading lady, and some of the historical context seems overcompensating. She does have an interesting sister and quite honestly there were points in the story I felt like a more absorbing story might be one about the mother and the sister.
The Paper Palace, as the family’s holiday home is fondly referred to, is surrounded by a lake and water plays a key role in the story. We first meet Elle as she is going for a swim, a cleanse, in the lake. Its clearly symbolic of calm and peace yet in other parts it’s strong and powerful and frightening. The story ends at the lake also. I thought that the symbolism was quite good but again it felt more for the screen than the imagination of a reader.
One of my biggest issues with The Paper Palace was how incredibly white the story is. There is literally no diversity in any of the main characters. Given that its set over fifty years and in a New York, Memphis, London and even Guatemala, there is a real lack of any representation in the book. It feels like a missed opportunity and the few non-white characters there are, are cliched piano teachers and gardeners. The main characters also felt flat and one-dimensional to me. Again, this goes back to how the story felt like it was for a viewing audience, all the main characters had to be a certain kind of beautiful and good and all the peripheral ones added the depth and interest.
Fundamentally The Paper Palace is a story about a love triangle. It’s about a middle-aged woman looking back at her life and wondering if she has made the right choice, and even if she has, doesn’t she still have the right to do things differently. There’s an interesting dichotomy here between being a good mother and a good wife but also living you best life and making choices that centre a women’s needs over that of her family. I’m just not sure that the character of Elle represented that as fully and as completely as she could have. I did enjoy this book, I found myself pondering over the ending for days after finishing the book and wondering what I would do in her situation, but because I couldn’t see myself as Elle, it left me wanting.
Length: 400 Pages
Dimensions: 240mm x 36mm x 162mm