I’m not able to resist a novel with a summer setting on Cape Cod. Something about the families who clashed in unusual closeness, face to face with their past, usually with some dark secrets and beautiful descriptions of the New England coast. There is usually one every year and this year Miranda Cowley Hellers is the paper Palace that has had all of the above in abundance. No one wants to be there when the leaves fall. But when summer returns and the forests are dense and the sapphire herons return to nest and Wade in the clear pond, there is no better place on Earth than this.
In the evening after a drunken dinner where her beloved man is still asleep, fifty years old, she faces the chaotic consequences. Last night she and her best friend Jonas had Gender in her childhood and now she is both intoxicating with love and full of guilt. The day must be over, but over time-quarrels with her seventeen-year-old son, exchanges with her Wasp mother, lunch with Jonas and his wife and evening barbecues with old friends-she remembers the life that led her to the impossible choice she has to make between these two men she both loves very much.
She and her beloved sister Anna spent the summer of their childhood in the camp built by her maternal grandfather from pressed cardboard, first with her unreliable father, and then with her stepfather, who settled his teenage son in Anna’s room at home in New York when she was sent to boarding school, with disastrous consequences. The ironic nickname Paper Palace offered an escape until the year she told Jonas something she kept to herself, leading to a decision that will affect both of them for decades. Now happily married, with three children, she faces the lies on which much of her life is built and finds her own way out.
She tells her story over the course of twenty-four hours through a series of flashbacks that continue as she unfolds the events that led to this crisis. The passages of Cape Cod are rich in coastal descriptions that I like, because Heller anchors her in this place that was the pivot of a childhood full of instability until she reveals the devastating secret that she and Jonas have kept since childhood. Heller’s characterization is strong-she’s an engaging narrator, and I especially enjoyed her hot-tempered, straight-talking mother. I was expecting a light summer read-beach parties with maybe a little infidelity, gossip and enjoyment-but Heller’s story becomes something much darker than that, and even better for it. A gripping, engrossing novel with a disturbing ending, this is the perfect smart summer to read, not to mention an impressive debut.