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Paper Marriages and Smouldering Romance: a review of 'The Paper Palace' by Miranda Coweley Heller

The Paper Palace takes an in depth look at a marital affair by bouncing between past and present. Miranda Coweley Heller delves into main character Elle’s memories to show all the tiny moments in life that build to the point of infidelity. That being said, this is not necessarily an exploration of Elle’s romantic or sexual guilt, but rather a character’s slow journey towards self-forgiveness and the gradual acceptance of an undeniable truth: a love that feels so inevitable, any decent astrologer would say Elle and Jonas shared a past life. There is guilt, but not so much for the affair. Elle regrets a single moment shared with Jonas, which in the aftermath, stalled their relationship and stunted Elle’s capacity for emotional intimacy in the long run.

Jonas’ almost delusional commitment to Elle withstands numerous rejections and spans years of silence in a way that can grate against your 21st century feminist principles, if you pause to think about it. However, if we accept his intensity as harmless and ‘Notebook-esque’, then there is a certain romance in his unshakeable faith in their future together. You might say The Paper Palace is a book for the hopeless romantic in all of us.

There were a few times when the book uncomfortably situated itself for a white readership by relegating African identities to awkward metaphors. For example, Heller writes: ‘the word sticks on my tongue, as if I'm speaking a Namibian click language’ and ‘She's traded in her African tribal earrings for tasteful pearl studs’. ​​I wish these alienating phrases had been caught in a sensitivity read to open this book up to the enjoyment of a wider and more diverse base as it touches on some important topics overall: sexual abuse, childhood trauma, divorce, infidelity and assault. Likewise, this book provides refreshing sexual representation for older demographics – an age bracket that is too often overlooked in romance. While this book might appeal to adult romance lovers of all ages, I would skew it more towards mature readers.

The majority of the present-day moments in the novel take place in Elle’s family lake house, nicknamed ‘The Paper Palace’ for its lovely exterior that conceals its fragile, mice-infested interior. This acts as a metaphor for marriage or, more broadly, family itself: outwardly beautiful yet vulnerable, with wrinkles impossible to smooth once crumpled and truths that eat away at us until we rot from the inside out. Faced with Elle and Jonas’ slow burn relationship, ultimately ‘The Paper Palace’ proves flammable.

"Hummingbirds are the only birds that can fly backward," Jonas said. "It's one of those facts that's always astonished me. They can fly backward and forward at equal speed. Thirty miles an hour."
"If I could fly backward, I would," I said. To the safety of branches, to the time when my heart raced for him like a hummingbird's, 1,200 beats per minute.
And he said, as he always did, "I know." – Miranda Coweley Heller, The Paper Palace, p.385

Author: Miranda Cowley Heller

Published: 08/07/2021

Publisher: Viking, Penguin Random House

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