I’m incapable of resisting a novel with a Cape Cod summer setting. Something about families thrust together in unaccustomed closeness, brought face to face with their pasts, usually with a few dark secrets thrown in, plus lovely descriptions of the New England coast. There’s usually one every year and this year’s is Miranda Cowley Heller’s The Paper Palace which turned out to have all of the above in abundance.
No one wants to be here once the leaves fall. But when the summer breaks again, and the woods are dense, and the blue herons come back to nest and wade in the bright pond, there is no better place on earth than this.
The night after a drunken dinner party, her beloved husband still asleep, fifty-year-old Elle is faced with the messy aftermath. Last night, she and her childhood best friend Jonas had sex and now Elle is both heady with love and racked with guilt. The day must be got through, but as it wears on – arguments with her seventeen-year-old-son, exchanges with her waspish mother, lunch with Jonas and his wife then a barbecue with old friends in the evening – Elle remembers the life that has led her to the impossible choice she must make between these two men, each of whom she loves dearly. She and her adored sister Anna spent their childhood summers at the camp built from pressed cardboard by their maternal grandfather, first with their unreliable father, then with their stepfather who installed his adolescent son in Anna’s room at home in New York when she was sent to boarding school, with disastrous results. The ironically nicknamed Paper Palace offered an escape until the year Elle tells Jonas something she has kept to herself leading to a decision which will have repercussions for them both for decades. Now happily married, with three children, Elle is faced with the lies on which so much of her life have been built and finds her own way out.
I wonder if he would love me if he could see inside my head – the pettiness, the dirty linen of my thoughts, the terrible things I have done
Elle tells her story over the course of twenty-four hours through a series of flashbacks which lengthen as she unfolds the events that have led to this crisis. The Cape Cod passages are rich in those coastal descriptions I love as Heller anchors Elle in this place which was the lynchpin of a childhood beset with instability until she reveals the devastating secret that Elle and Jonas have kept since they were teenagers. Heller’s characterisation is strong – Elle is an engaging narrator and I particularly enjoyed her irascible, straight-talking mother. I’d expected a light summer read – parties on the beach with maybe a little infidelity, gossipy and entertaining – but Heller’s story becomes something very much darker than that, and all the better for it. A gripping, thoroughly engrossing novel with a disconcerting ending, it’s the perfect intelligent summer read, not to mention an impressive debut.
Viking: London 9780241470718 372 pages Hardback read vis NetGalley