The Paper Palace (Book Rant)

At the end of December, I make lists of my ten favorite and least favorite reads from the year. There’s still some time to go before I start compiling those lists, but I’d be willing to bet nothing beats The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller for the number one spot on the worst books list.

If I’ve read a book more detrimental to my mental health, I can’t remember it. I felt nauseated. I felt angry. I read with a visible grimace on my face because I was so disgusted I physically couldn’t hide it. It took me four days to read The Paper Palace (and that was aggressively pushing through it because I needed to be done with it for my own sanity) and I was irritable and unhappy the whole time. I slept badly and woke up on the wrong side of the bed. I wanted badly to DNF, but since I read the book for a book club that I’m leading for work, I couldn’t exactly nope out of it, even though I desperately wanted to. The Paper Palace is unrelentingly miserable and triggering, and for my money there’s nothing in the story or the writing that makes up for it.

Rating: 0 out of 5.

This review, as you can probably tell, is going to get into ranty territory. If you liked this book, this review is not for you. (Also, how did you like this book?). There are also a few spoilers, although I avoid the biggest one. If you want to be 100% spoiler free, this review is not for you. Lastly, there is no discussing The Paper Palace without discussing rape, incest, child abuse, and pedophilia. If you need to avoid these topics, this review is not for you and this book is DEFINITELY not for you. Please, please take care of yourself and do not read The Paper Palace if you have any sex-based triggers.

The Paper Palace claims to be about a married woman who has an affair with her childhood best friend and then angsts about whether or not she should leave her husband. I was not excited to read that, but in retrospect I wish that’s what it had been about. What it’s actually about is sexual abuse, more specifically incestuous child abuse. There’s no indication of this anywhere on the cover or the back of the book. There’s no trigger warning near the title page. You just start reading and then bam you find out that the main character’s grandmother was forced to perform sexual favors on her stepfather when she was eight years old. There’s no reason for that, unless it is to foreshadow the main character being repeatedly assaulted and eventually raped by her stepbrother.

For the record, this is the description of the book that I take offense to:

It is a perfect July morning, and Elle, a fifty-year-old happily married mother of three, awakens at “The Paper Palace”–the family summer place which she has visited every summer of her life. But this morning is different: last night Elle and her oldest friend Jonas crept out the back door into the darkness and had sex with each other for the first time, all while their spouses chatted away inside. Now, over the next twenty-four hours, Elle will have to decide between the life she has made with her genuinely beloved husband, Peter, and the life she always imagined she would have had with her childhood love, Jonas, if a tragic event hadn’t forever changed the course of their lives. As Heller colors in the experiences that have led Elle to this day, we arrive at her ultimate decision with all its complexity. Tender yet devastating, The Paper Palace considers the tensions between desire and dignity, the legacies of abuse, and the crimes and misdemeanors of families

from Goodreads

This description grossly underemphasizes the abuse. It is graphic and constant. The Jonas/Elle affair, on the other hand, is relatively minor. It opens and closes the book, but is largely forgotten in the interim. There are no circumstances under which I would have liked The Paper Palace, but I was in no way prepared for the content and, as I may have mentioned, I don’t have triggers. I have never been abused and I have a very healthy relationship with my family. I read books with difficult content all the time. The fact that I was this disturbed and upset by this novel should give you some idea of just how disturbing and upsetting it is. Anyway…

I’m not really sure what Cowley Heller has against stepfamilies. The stepfathers and stepbrothers are all perverted pedophiles, and the stepmothers are controlling bitches. That’s Cowley Heller’s word, by the way. You’d think a book so focused on sexual violence would have some compassion for women, but you’d be wrong. Elle, our narrator, is a big fan of misogynistic insults. Women are all sluts and bitches. She slut-shames everyone, even rape victims. Giving Cowley Heller the benefit of the doubt, I’m assuming this was meant to be a point; Elle’s mother is extremely sexist, and so Elle has inherited her mother’s biases. It would’ve been nice to have any indication that this was the case. Even if that was the intent, the execution was bad. There are tons of unnecessary sexist asides, like the time Elle quietly agrees with her mother that a marriage without children isn’t a real marriage or how she constantly dismisses a longtime friend as not deserving of Jonas essentially because she’s attractive and was wearing a revealing top when they first met.

But the anti-divorce strain in the book is bizarre. The novel seems to posit that divorce makes families miserable and the only way to be happy is to stay in your marriage, whatever the circumstances. Pretty much the only happily family is the one in which the divorced parents get remarried. Never mind that higher rates of divorce are tied to the increase in women’s rights or that people absolutely should get divorced if they’re in an unhappy or unsafe marriage. Lots of second marriages are happy and successful. Lots of stepfamilies are loving and wholesome, with nary an incestuous rape to be seen. 

It doesn’t help the uncomfortable implications that Elle’s rapist stepbrother gets entirely too much sympathy. Cowley Heller makes him absolutely despicable through his actions (at one point he stands over Elle while he believes her to be sleeping and promises to impregnate her through rape), but she spends way too much time reminding us that his mother abandoned him and that he was stranded with a family of women who don’t like him. Duh they don’t like him! He sneaks into Elle’s room at night and masturbates on her! He rapes both Elle and his biological sister! Trying to get along with him was not going to fix that. Cowley Heller doesn’t want to let Conrad entirely off the hook—she never tries to fully justify his actions, and she rightly suggests that he deserves everything that subsequently happens to him—but there are far too many scenes that attempt to build sympathy for him, and I’m not here for that.

The supposed good guys aren’t that great either. Jonas is weirdly possessive of Elle considering that their childhood best-friendship comes from like three short summers spent together; after that, they were separated for years and only ever met up occasionally to blather about how desperately in love with each other they are before remembering that they can’t be together and departing in a tizzy. Not to mention that they first kiss when Jonas is twelve and Elle is fifteen. Imagine a fifteen-year-old boy kissing a twelve-year-old girl and tell me you’d be okay with it. Flipping it doesn’t make it any better, and making Elle’s sister joke about it doesn’t take away any of the squick.

Then you have Peter, Elle’s supposedly perfect husband… whose idea of a joke is calling his mother-in-law a bitch or teaming up with his teenage son to mock Elle, and who watched Elle pee the night they met. It’s incomprehensible to me that Elle—who was repeatedly sexually assaulted in her childhood, and by a person whose first infraction was spying on her in the bathroom—would be okay with a stranger watching her pee so closely that he can describe her underwear three decades later. If someone told me to get into their car and then watched me pee that closely, I wouldn’t marry him; I’d call the police. It’s all gross. Everyone in this book is so gross.

The book is also in favor of traditional toxic masculinity. It’s like Cowley Heller couldn’t think of any way to make her male heroes appealing except to have them physically defend Elle from something. I won’t say what Jonas does because it’s a huge spoiler even if it is immensely predictable. Peter fights enemies off a lot, though. The night he meets Elle he has to fight off a man with a tire iron (Peter had the tire iron; the other guy had a swastika tattoo, in case the reader couldn’t tell he was Bad News), and in another scene he has to chase a thief away from Elle with a kitchen knife. If there’s a theme in The Paper Palace (aside from stepfamilies=bad) it’s that men are violent. They will either use their violence against women or against other men for women. The women, on the other hand, are passive. They will not step in. They do not save each other.

If all the grossness and depressing, appalling stuff built into something bigger, I’d be fine with it. I read sad books all the time. There are lots of excellent books that depict and engage with sexual violence. My problem with The Paper Palace isn’t that it includes this content. My problem is that it seems to be there just for the sake of piling on the misery. Elle’s grandmother’s story is unnecessary. There are countless scenes that apparently serve no purpose beyond humiliating Elle and adding to the collective misery. Why do we need to know about the time Elle peed on the floor at ballet class? It has already been well established that her mother is never there for her. I think Cowley Heller just wanted to make sure we got at least two or three scenes with every major bodily fluid. The book doesn’t seem to have anything to say about sexual violence aside from it exists and it sucks. Sometimes it even ruins romance.

Speaking of romance… yikes. Talk about nonsensical and stupid. Like ninety percent of The Paper Palace takes place in flashback, which is presumably supposed to distract from how ludicrous the present day is. We’re supposed to believe that Elle and Jonas were childhood best friends. That should be easy to believe, but the flashbacks eventually show that they were only close friends for a few short years before being separated and occasionally meeting up between year-long separations during which they give each other the silent treatment because of romantic angst. We’re told that they have been in love with each other since childhood. I’m skeptical, but sure. Fine. I still think the age difference is weird and should have been insurmountable, but whatever. Then we find out that there’s some dark secret that keeps them from being together romantically. Intrigue! Cool! Then we find out what the secret is and… I don’t know that I understand why it keeps them from being together. I could see it maybe destroying their relationship entirely, but it’s weird to me that their friendship got so much closer but it somehow ruined any chance of anything romantic. Who knew dark secrets had romance-specific caveats? But let’s say I’m on board with all of this. I’m not, but let’s say I am.

I’m supposed to believe that after all that, they get slightly drunk at a family gathering with their spouses and parents present, exchanged a look, and then snuck outside for a quickie? Yeah, okay. They both drink. It’s not like alcohol has total destructive power over their self-control. No part of me believes that that kind of relationship would be consummated so quickly and randomly after supposedly building for like forty years. Maybe Elle’s ex-stepsister’s revelation contributed, but there’s no way to overcome that much shame that quickly. Their affair also doesn’t feel at all significant. It’s a middle-aged love triangle. It’s whatever. But it also feels irrelevant. Cowley Heller just forgets about it for huge swathes of time and then drops back into be like oh yeah Peter said a funny joke, Jonas did a knowing look, Elle’s mom said something offensive, and someone went for a swim! Back to the rapes! A part of me wonders if the affair was emphasized and given the prime real estate at the start and end of the book so that The Paper Palace didn’t have to be marketed as “a novel about pre-teen girls shamefully keeping their rapes secret because they know they won’t be protected.” I know that is the truth of the world for too many people, but I suspect I’m not the only one who’d be wary to sign up for four hundred pages of it.

One of the things that The Paper Palace gets praised for is its writing. Apparently there are some people who like the descriptions in this book. I’m not going to join that chorus. I don’t care about physical descriptions—but I’m rightfully skeptical of anyone who describes the protagonist’s “heavy breasts” on page two; I thought creepily sexualized descriptions of women’s bodies right at the start of a book was supposed to be a male phenomenon—but the actual storytelling is terrible. The construction of the flashbacks is clumsy. The character continuity is suspect (Elle is so ashamed of her assaults that she never breathes word of them or even really acknowledges what is being done to her… except in very clear terms in a diary with a broken lock that she earlier claimed only to write to-do lists in, and then she decides to play the pronoun game to develop tension that goes literally nowhere). The only thing Cowley Heller does really well is writing horrific scenes of sexual assault, and she takes advantage of that talent by writing a lot of them.

Weirdly, when I discussed this book with my book club, they were totally focused on the love triangle and all the rape and incest barely registered to them as more than a blip. They even called the book “a beach read.” I’m glad some people can read this and have the main takeaway be the question of which suitor Elle chose rather than emotional trauma, but I still can’t quite believe it.

What’s the verdict?

Reese Witherspoon usually picks really good books for her book club, but I don’t know what she was thinking with this one. I’ve never had a book impact my mental health so negatively (I had coworkers asking me if I was okay because I was so off). I despised this book. No caveats. I do not recommend this book. Again, no caveats. No if you liked this, you might like this. No it just wasn’t my taste. If you want to feel good, don’t read this. If you want to feel sad, don’t read this. There are lots of sad books that are rewarding. The Paper Palace is absolutely horrible, and I actually feel mildly ill just thinking about it.

Suggestions for better books:

Leigh Bardugo’s brilliant Ninth House deals with traumatic death and sexual assault, but does it in a way that focuses on bodily autonomy and gives women an active role in their own recoveries. It also has the benefit of having compelling characters and interesting plotlines in addition to the thematic emphases; it’s not just one rape scene after another.

Reese Witherspoon previously picked Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. It is excellent. I really don’t know what was up this time, because her picks are usually quite good.

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo is one of my all-time favorite novels. It is full of misery, as you can probably guess from the title, but the main takeaway is hope, not despair. It is about redemption and love, not about darkness prevailing.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owen has the lush, description-rich writing that people so often praise in The Paper Palace, but with the added benefit of not being disgusting. No eight-year-olds are forced to give blowjobs (although there is an awkward age gap à la Jonas and Elle). This is also one of Reese’s picks.

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid is a wonderful novel about the rise and fall of an immensely talented but tortured band. It includes a tumultuous relationship/affair that has the main character seriously considering his marriage and what he’s doing in it. Reese also picked this one. See what I mean about her usually picking winners?

Just want a steamy novel with lots of (consensual) sex scenes? The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang isn’t bad.

Want a story about how guilt and grief can follow people into adulthood? Jandy Nelson deservedly won a Printz Award for I’ll Give You the Sun, which follows a pair of siblings before and after a traumatic event. It’s an amazing, artistic novel and stylistically one of the most remarkable I’ve ever read. It makes the amateur flashback construction in The Paper Palace look downright embarrassing.

Just need something sad but great? Adam Silvera should be your go-to. Right now I’m recommending More Happy Than Not because it is all about shame and regret, but everything he has ever written is great.

Lastly, if you want a book that actually does a good job detailing the aftermath of a rape, try Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston. It keeps its focus squarely on its heroine and it follows her as she, with the help of an excellent support system, overcomes her shame and moves on. One could perhaps say it errs on the side of support and hope, but as long as we’re reading fiction, why not read something where a victim’s friends stand by her and she refuses to be defined or destroyed by a violation?

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5 thoughts on “The Paper Palace (Book Rant)

  1. I wish I came across your post before I started this book. I relate to your feelings so much. I was forcing myself to read it, beyond all the disturbing images and scenes and I finally stopped today half way through. It was stressing me out and making me sick to read. I was nervous and profoundly disturbed. Like you, I have read novels with sad material, memories with disturbing accounts. But those were just a small part of the story. This novel is hit after hit of horror. I warned all my biiolphile friends.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I also wish I’d known what I was getting into. All the marketing and most of the reviews focuses on the love triangle/affair so I expected something mostly light and fun and then got… this.


  2. It was so therapeutic to read your Angry Rant after finishing this book and feeling baffled by the praise heaped upon it by writers I really respect. It’s like A Little Life all over again for me. The writing is cringeworthy in many places and the sex scenes sound like they were written by a 70s literary dinosaur like Roth or Mailer. ‘My sex swelled’ – god help me. Thanks for making me feel less alone!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I 100% agree with you. I actually had already decided not to finish the book before I read your review, but you just totally confirmed my decision. This book is disturbing on many levels. I’m not opposed to reading difficult subject matter if it is handled well by the author. This is not the case. Heller reports an 8 year old performing oral sex on her stepfather like it’s no big deal. Not sure why this book got rave reviews. It’s awful.

    Liked by 1 person

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