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Love Is A Losing Game And Choice Is A Curse In 'The Paper Palace'


A new novel set in late summer on Cape Cod is all about desire. Even the writing seems to drip with secrets and longing. Here's the author, Miranda Cowley Heller, reading from the first few pages.

MIRANDA COWLEY HELLER: (Reading) I dropped my bathrobe to the ground and stand naked at the water's edge. On the far side of the pond, beyond the break of pine and shrub oak, the ocean is furious, roaring. It must be carrying a storm in its belly from somewhere out at sea. But here at the edge of the pond, the air is honey still. I wait, watch, listen - the chirping, buzzing of tiny insects, a wind that stirs the trees too gently. Then I wade in up to my knees and dive headlong into the freezing water. I swim out into the deep, past the water lilies, pushed forward by exhilaration, freedom and an adrenaline rush of nameless panic. I have a shadow fear of snapping turtles coming up from the depths to bite my heavy breasts. Or perhaps, they'll be drawn by the smell of sex as I open and close my legs.

KELLY: Phew. That is Miranda Cowley Heller.


KELLY: Reading this, you can't help would be just drawn in by that. That is her debut novel "The Paper Palace." And as you can hear from the laugh, Miranda Cowley Heller is with us.


COWLEY HELLER: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: All right. I just - set the scene because I feel like you've transported me. We are on Cape Cod. Where are we? What is the Paper Palace?

COWLEY HELLER: We are on the part of Cape Cod called the Outer Cape, which is a very different landscape than, I believe, most people anticipate or picture. It's not Hyannis Port. It's a very wild and passionate landscape with huge cliffs and dunes. But there are also these beautiful ponds right near the sea. And most of the novel is set in the backwoods of the Outer Cape on the edge of this pond, where the family of the heroine Elle Bishop has had a camp on the edge of a pond that's ironically called the Paper Palace because when it was built, her grandfather who built it ran out of money. And so he built a lot of it out of Homasote, which is a kind of cardboard. So although it's a rundown camp, they refer to it as the Paper Palace.

KELLY: The Paper Palace as it gently decays in the salty air all around them - so, Elle, your heroine, your protagonist, who is - and the whole book is in her voice. It's all first person. Describe her for us. She's a mother of three. She's really happily married. But there's a big old but.

COWLEY HELLER: There's a big old but (laughter). Elle Bishop is in her early 50s. She is very happily married, has three children. And when the novel opens, she has just woken when she takes this swim and remembers what she did the night before, which was that her very best friend, whose name is Jonas - during a dinner party her mother is giving with Jonas' wife Gina present and Elle's husband Peter present. Jonas and Elle go out back and have sex, very hot sex for the first time, even though they have been best friends since childhood. Now she finds herself at this crossroads. And over the next 24 hours, she's going to have to decide whether to stay with her very beloved and wonderful, gorgeous husband Peter or the man she always dreamed of and thought she would marry if something rather terrible hadn't broken them apart in their childhood.

KELLY: And one of the central questions that propels the whole book forward is, why now? As you say, this was somebody who Elle had the hots for when she was a kid. Why have they crossed this line now?

COWLEY HELLER: Well, that's exactly the question. And, of course, I can't answer it because that would be giving away. But it is - instead of a whodunit, I think there's an emotional mystery that runs through that you are pointing out. So it's sort of a why done it, exactly. Something happens that you learn over the course of the novel toward the very end that propels them outdoors and gives her a kind of freedom she didn't have before. But because the novel is told in 24 hours but also 50 years - two parallel stories - it takes you up through the 50 years before you really find out the whys.

KELLY: Yeah. Setting aside the men, setting aside the sex, the mom is quite a character (laughter). As I read her, I really liked her. I - and at the same time was thinking, oh, God, she would drive me nuts if she were my mom. What is it about that relationship, the mother-daughter relationship, that you wanted to capture?

COWLEY HELLER: I think they - Elle - first of all, Wallace is my favorite character, probably, in the book. I absolutely love her. I love how rude and funny she is.

KELLY: I bet she was an awful lot of fun to write.

COWLEY HELLER: She was the most fun character to write by a long chalk. But I think what interests me in this is there's a bunch of women, there's generations of women in the novel. There's Wallace's mother, Nanette, who undergoes a certain trauma, as a result of which her daughter, Wallace, undergoes another kind of a trauma, which shapes who she is. Then when Elle's life turns dark, maybe if her mother hadn't gone through what she'd gone through, Elle would have been able to come to her mother and talk to her about it. These are powerful women. These are not victims at all. I think they're all - but they're all women who have had to sort of put away childish things. And they come from - each comes from such a different generation, and that really interested me as well.

KELLY: And then, of course, Elle has a daughter herself.


KELLY: And you wonder how each of all of these tensions swirling beneath the surface she might be absorbing and how it will shape her for your sequel in 20 years (laughter).

COWLEY HELLER: For the sequel - well, and I think without having to answer that question, it's such - it raises the question. I think our parents' love lives, our grandparents' love lives can change the course of our history. And so it's not just we inherit choices. There's a kind of, you know, a trickle-down emotional economics, if you want to call it that. We inherit choices as well as making them.

KELLY: It also seems to get it - there - you know, as we look back, as we get older and look back over our lives, you can point to certain moments where everything changed, where you had to make a call. And it's really interesting seeing a woman, your character, Elle, who has made the choice. She married the nice guy, the posh Brit. She's got three kids. Everything worked out great. And yet she's at another moment where she doesn't have forever to make this choice because she's going to wreck her marriage if she continues with Jonas...

COWLEY HELLER: Absolutely.

KELLY: She's got to decide, and she's kind of got to decide right now.

COWLEY HELLER: Yeah, she does. And I think there's an emotional truth to that that may not always be true of putting that kind of pressure. But when you love two people that passionately, there is a need to choose. She can't keep - she can't - it can't be an affair. There's no way Jonas could be an affair, and so she knows this. She knows herself.

KELLY: That is the writer Miranda Cowley Heller talking about her new novel "The Paper Palace."

Thank you very much.

COWLEY HELLER: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHITNEY SONG, "FTA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Justine Kenin