The novel’s “past” narrative, which traces Elle’s infancy, childhood, adolescence and eventual marriage, also rings true to the reader — so true, in fact, that at times this novel starts to feel like a memoir with an infidelity plot tacked on. Moving through the years to the present day, we learn the family histories of both Elle’s father and mother; we meet and get to know her grandparents on both sides. Her parents divorce when she and her sister are little, after which lovers, stepparents and stepsiblings pile up, only a few of whom prove essential to either the plot or theme of “The Paper Palace.”
Rather than working in the service of the story, the accumulation of so many minor characters, and the highly specific detail of everything from Elle’s grandmother’s estate in Guatemala to her stepfather’s best friend’s farm in Vermont, suggest a faithful, factual recounting — whether or not they have anything to do with Heller’s real life.
I managed to hold off Googling the author, yet suspect that with her casual use of English vocabulary — “claret,” “jacket potatoes,” “windscreen” — she has spent some time in Britain. This works both for her and against her. The character of Peter, Elle’s English husband, is, along with her mother, Wallace, one of the more vivid characters in the book. With his joyfully unrepentant chain-smoking, his defense of socks with sandals and his charmingly dry, unsentimental banter, Peter was real enough to me that I could see his fair skin peeling under the American summer sky.
But when Heller abruptly moves Elle to England (“1989. February, London”), I wasn’t sure what she was doing there. Many pages elapse before Elle explains baldly — and overspecifically, as if forming an alibi — that she was “getting a postgraduate degree in French literature at Queen Mary and planned to teach.”
The best memoirs unspool a red thread that a reader follows as excitedly as any novel’s. With memoir, though, certain shortcuts are possible because we know from the outset that the narrator becomes a famous artist; a recovered alcoholic; a nun. In a memoir, one can move the narrative with a quick nod along the lines of (my own sentence, not Heller’s) “By this time, I was living in London.” We understand that this is but one stop on the way to fame; sobriety; the convent.