Imagine waking up on a perfect July morning at your family’s summer place, only to find out that this time things are going to be extremely different.
Last night, you made love with your childhood friend and lifelong crush while your respective spouses were chatting away inside. Now, over the next twenty-four hours, you have to make a life-changing decision between your loving husband of many years and the person you’ve always imagined being with.
This is the dilemma that Elle faces in this Miranda Cowley Heller novel.
In this discussion guide, we will delve into some amazing book club questions for The Paper Palace so that you can understand Elle’s complex journey as she grapples with the tensions between desire and dignity, the legacies of trauma, and the crimes and misdemeanors of those whom we once called our own.
We will explore the narrative as it shifts back and forth in time, immersing ourselves in Elle’s memories of the summers spent on Cape Cod and the secrets and lies that have led her to this momentous choice.
So, grab a cup of coffee and settle in for a thought-provoking and emotional journey into Elle’s life.
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Book Club Questions for The Paper Palace
- Elle’s father is a powerful and manipulative figure who has always exerted control over her life. He is the one who arranged her marriage to Peter and made her feel like she had no other options. Elle’s decision not to save Conrad can be seen as a result of her father’s influence, as she was trying to impress him and gain his approval. Later in the novel, when she stands up to her father and disowns him, she begins to assert her own authority and make decisions based on her own desires and values.
Discuss the transition of Elle from a follower mentality to a leader mentality based on this context.
- Elle’s guilt over Conrad’s death is a major source of tension in both her marriage to Peter and her friendship with Jonas. She keeps her past a secret from Peter, lying to him about her past, and never tells him the full story of what happened on the boat. With Jonas, she tries to distance herself from him, feeling that their relationship is tainted by their shared guilt. Ultimately, it is only when she confronts her past and forgives herself that she is able to move forward and make a choice for her own happiness.
Do you think Elle and Jonas did the right thing? Discuss their deeds from an ethical point of view.
- The natural landscape of Cape Cod is an integral part of the novel, serving as a character in its own right. Elle finds solace in the beauty of the Back Woods, and it is only when she returns to these places that she is able to confront her past and move forward. The landscape is also intimately connected to Jonas, who is a part of it and embodies its wild and untamed spirit.
Do you agree with my metaphorical representation of this landscape of Cape Cod? If not, share your opinion.
- The green glass ring that Jonas gives to Elle after Conrad’s death represents their shared guilt and the weight of their secret. The snapping turtle that Jonas catches represents his primal, violent nature, while the osprey nest that his wife catches him trying to find represents his desire for freedom and escape. The Paper Palace itself represents a kind of prison for Elle, trapping her in a life that she feels is not her own.
What’s your take on the way Heller has used symbolism in the novel to represent these larger-than-life situations?
- Anna and Elle have similar experiences of growing up in a family with negative gender influences, but they react to those influences in different ways. Anna is described as someone who thrives on confrontation, doesn’t care about what others think, and has a warrior mentality embedded in her. This is in contrast to Elle, who is more introspective, seeks to avoid conflict, and struggles with feelings of guilt and shame. Anna’s reaction to the family’s negative influences ultimately leads to her growing distance from them, while Elle remains close to the family in spite of her deep secret.
Anna, though being a secondary character in the novel, finds her place in the reader’s heart. What are some traits of Anna that you personally loved? Also, discuss how this sibling bond helps Elle stay away from isolation.
- Wallace’s conversation with Elle regarding Conrad provides a degree of absolution for Elle, as she admits to her mother about not throwing Conrad the life vest when he drowned. Wallace’s comfort towards Elle, and her understanding and advice towards her, leads to Elle letting go of the bitterness she felt towards her mother. This shows that sometimes our acts of vengeance are justified owing to our own suffering.
Do you think what Elle and Jonas did to Conrad was justified?
- The structure of The Paper Palace, with its use of flashbacks, allows the reader to understand the complex family history that has shaped Elle and her relationships. By moving quickly through time, the novel builds a rich picture of Elle’s unhappy childhood, her relationships with her parents and grandparents, and the events that led to her current dilemma. The flashbacks are tightly controlled and serve to build a portrait of a family with deep-seated issues that continue to affect Elle and her decisions in the present.
What’s your take on this structure of the novel, and did you think it helped contribute to the characterization of Elle and her family?
- The moments of overblown language and the privileged background of the characters may affect the reader’s engagement with the novel, depending on their own experiences and perspective. Some readers may find the language pretentious or off-putting, while others may enjoy the cinematic quality it lends to the story. The characters’ privilege is certainly a factor in their experiences and decisions, but this does not necessarily detract from the novel’s themes of love, loss, and family.
- The Paper Palace could be adapted for the screen in a number of ways, depending on the vision of the filmmakers. The novel’s structure, with its use of flashbacks and present-day scenes, would lend itself well to a TV show or film, and the rich characterization and complex relationships would provide plenty of material for actors to sink their teeth into. Whether or not the adaptation would be successful is hard to say, but given the popularity of Reese Witherspoon’s book club (of which this novel is a part of) and considering Heller having served as the Senior Vice President and Head of Drama Series at HBO, things look quite set to be honest.
If the book is ever adapted into a TV show, whom do you want as the primary set of characters? Also, what changes would you like in the novel compared to the book.
- When Jonas returns the Green Ring to Elle, it signifies the importance of the ring as a symbol of their love. Even though Elle chooses to leave their love behind and move forward in her journey to self-forgiveness, the ring does not lose its significance. The return of the ring symbolizes the end of their relationship and the closure that Elle needs to move on. It’s significant that Elle leaves her wedding ring from Peter behind as she swims across the pond to Jonas at the end of the novel, indicating that she has let go of her past and is ready to start anew.
What’s your take on this symbolism of the Green Ring?
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