Summer beach books are usually light, enjoyable, and often as forgettable as a strawberry Twissler®. The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller is a cut above the usual beach book. This might be Heller’s first novel, but she has props from a career writing for HBO and for TV. A novel is a different beast than a screen play, but it’s not a distant reach. Heller’s characters are strong, especially the women, but even some of the men stand the test of reader approval also.
Wallace, an indifferent mother, a beautiful woman, after her husband divorces her, spends too much time needing the attention of other men, and trying to force relationships that are not close or rewarding enough, to suffice. When she finally gives up on looking for love she becomes the matriarch with enough feisty character to become a better grandparent than she was a parent. Still, however much you might appreciate her wit and beauty, you wouldn’t want to leave your children alone with Wallace for too long. She’s too self-absorbed.
The Paper Palace is the name of the Cape Cod summer house that has been in the family for decades. It was built when times were economically tough, so it is not necessarily glamorous. There is a Big House with kitchen, living room, porch, pantry and bathroom. There is an outdoor shower and several ticky-tacky cottages just for sleeping. It’s a place that you learn to love through familiarity and longevity. The camp faces a pond, with a narrow wood beyond, and at the end of the wood is the ocean. The wildlife the family encounters are more pond and woods creatures than ocean dwellers. Of course, the family makes many visits to more accessible beaches on the Cape.
Leo is the most recent of Wallace’s husbands. He’s a jazz musician and is gone a lot. Leo and Wallace fight frequently. He has two children by another marriage, but his daughter stays with the mom. Wallace’s family adds Chuck. To Wallace and Leo, Chuck is a socially awkward, poorly adjusted boy who will grow out of his difficulties; to Wallace’s daughters, Elle and Anna, he is a creepy and guilty secret they keep because they can’t bear to break up Wallace and Leo.
Secrets have consequences and these secrets fall far more on Elle than on Anna, because Anna goes away to boarding school. And yet, even as a young girl, Elle has far better taste in men than her mother ever had. Both Jonas and Peter love her. Would she have married Jonas if they didn’t share a terrible guilt of their own, and if Chuck wasn’t involved in the whole mess?
The story and the characters are enough to hold your interest, but Heller uses her words to bring us to camp with her. Through Wallace and Elle, she takes us through the earthy and the sublime, the earthy being her witty and profane conversations, the sublime being the way she describes nature and the close connections having a lifetime of Cape Cod summers offer those who are lucky enough to have such a legacy.