The Paper Palace is extremely hard to review. The writing is so beautiful and the narrative – so complex, that I feel my attempts at coherent thought can never ever do them justice. So, I will start simple – with the facts.
The book’s protagonist, Elle (for Eleanor, so I like her already), has spent all the summers of her life at the Paper Palace – a camp, made by her grandfather, by a pond in the Back Woods, on Cape Cod. She is fifty at the start of the book, and has just had sex with her childhood friend Jonas somewhere behind the house while her husband and kids are on the porch. She struggles with what this means and what to do in the span of a day. There is a parallel storyline, which follows Elle growing up, going through her mother’s divorce and boyfriends, her father’s relationships, her own trauma, marriage and loss, up to this point.
All through her journey, the camp and the pond is where she comes to life, transforms and changes.
I love Cape Cod. I’ve spent three summers there on a Work and Travel program and I feel like it’s in my bones, so imagine what fifty years would look like. I also relate to Elle’s attachment to the place, because my family, too, has a summer getaway heavenly place, which we open for the season. I get that and I loved that.
The book is very complex and layered. It delves into great detail, uncovering the past of Elle and her family, all the trauma and small choices that led to big consequences. At the same time what happens in the ‘here and now’ storyline is very metaphorical, very ambiguous.
Some characters are vivid and simply amazing – Peter and Wallace most of all – others, including Elle, are not entirely fleshed out. Especially Elle and Jonas. This I found very weird about the book – we care about them and we know their deepest secrets, darkest impulses, but not what they are like. It feels like they carry so much of the book’s substance, that they are left as stripped of specifics as possible.
And I have to say something about that ending, although I am afraid it could come out as a spoiler. I find it in dissonance with the manner of storytelling before that. It was extraordinary and beautiful, but not very satisfying.
Photo by Xuan Nguyen on Unsplash