Miranda Cowley Heller’s novel The Paper Palace tells the story of Elle, a woman whose life is both troubled and complicated. She must choose which man to share her life with: her husband, Peter, or her childhood sweetheart, Jonas.
Elle is 50 years old, with three children, an older sister, a mother named Wallace, and a past full of violence, deceit, secrets, and longing. Wallace’s mother married a billionaire, a graduate of Andover and Princeton, who buys her an apartment overlooking Central Park. He also casually and constantly molests nine-year-old Wallace and her younger brother. This is the world Elle and her sister navigate, as Wallace eventually winds up marrying a man whose son will in turn rape Elle, and it turns out, others as well. This rape and its violent consequences will haunt Elle throughout the novel.
What provides solace is the woods of the Outer Cape — a place of pond swims and beach outings, a place that casts spells with the beauty of its surroundings, that is in Elle’s bones, “every wheeze, every grunt.” Her family owns a set of cabins mockingly referred to as the “Paper Palace,” as the construction is of pressed paper — a ramshackle compound full of mouse nests, spiders, and mildew.
Heller structures the novel in the 24 hours after Elle wakes on the day after a secret nighttime assignation with Jonas. In those hours, Elle must decide whether to leave Peter and their three children to join Jonas, who will also be leaving his wife. As that day and the next night unfold, we flash back to the years of Elle’s childhood, to New York, London, Memphis, and, always, the wooded comfort of Cape Cod. There is a Fourth of July spent in Wellfleet, plus bonfires and boating. There are accidents and confrontations, from which the participants quickly backpedal, as the need for keeping secrets proves more compelling than telling the truth. But there are also moments of pure languor — days spent in the sticky happiness of family life, in the expansive nature of summer days in salty air.
The event: Miranda Cowley Heller discusses The Paper Palace with Karen Dukess as part of Castle Hill Author Talks.
The time: Saturday, July 10 at 6 p.m.
The place: Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill’s Edgewood Farm, 3 Edgewood Way
The cost: $15 admission. Signed copies of the book will be available for purchase.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Saturday’s author talk was free.