Did you read The Paper Palace and need to talk about that ending? Need a list of characters or a plot summary? Want to discuss spoilers for The Paper Palace? What do YOU think: does Elle choose Peter or Jonas at the end of The Paper Palace? We have a lot of opinions and thoughts and want to hear yours! Come pull up a chair and join us! Here’s a Spoiler Discussion and Plot Summary for The Paper Palace!
Spoiler Discussion and Plot Summary for The Paper Palace
Here’s a quick list of what’s in the post so you can find what you need:
Brief Synopsis of The Paper Palace
List of Characters in The Paper Palace
What (and where) is The Paper Palace?
List of Events in Elle’s Life in The Paper Palace
Does Elle choose Peter or Jonas at the end of The Paper Palace?
Spoiler Discussion for The Paper Palace
Book Club Questions for the Paper Palace
The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller was published in 2021 by Riverhead Books. Disclosure: this post contains Amazon affiliate links and I may receive a small percentage of qualifying purchases at no cost to you.
Very Brief Synopsis of The Paper Palace
If you just want a short synopsis of the story, here you go:
Eleanor (Elle) has spent her summers at her family’s Cape Cod home since childhood. Now fifty-five, she is there with her husband Peter and her three children, plus her mother, Wallace. Elle has also just slept with Jonas, a married childhood friend with whom she’s always had a deep emotional connection.
Elle feels horribly guilty but reflects on her family history, which includes her mother being sexually abused by her stepfather and Elle being raped at age sixteen by her stepbrother, Conrad.
Years ago, after Jonas got Elle to confide in him about the rape, the two of them went out on a boat with Conrad, who was not an experienced sailor. In rough seas, Conrad was knocked overboard and they did not try to save him.
Jonas always had a crush on Elle, but the memory of what what she suffered and of the part the two of them played in Conrad’s death always haunted her.
Elle promised Jonas she’d let him know if she was going to get married, then got engaged without telling him. Jonas subsequently gets married too.
Years later, when Jonas shows up on the Cape, Elle sleeps with him, then spends the rest of the book thinking about her life and her family’s history. All of this leads up to the end and her presumptive choice between Peter and Jonas.
The author thinks her choice is clear, but do we???
Characters in The Paper Palace
Eleanor (Elle) (55, born in 1966). The daughter of Henry and Wallace.
Peter – Elle’s husband, a British journalist.
Jack (17) Maddy (10) and Finn (9) are Elle’s children
Wallace – Elle’s mother
Anna – Elle’s sister. Born two years before Elle, she died of ovarian cancer in her 30s.
Jonas – A painter who is two or three years younger than Elle. They first met when Elle was 10.
Henry – Elle’s father
Dwight and Nancy – the parents of Joanne, Henry’s second wife
Leo – Wallace’s boyfriend after her divorce. A jazz musician with two children.
Conrad – Leo’s son, one year older than Elle. He comes to live with Leo, Wallace, Elle and Anna when Elle is around 12.
Rosemary – Leo’s daughter, three years younger than Elle.
Dixon – a friend of Wallace’s and Anna’s godfather. Married to Andrea.
William and Myrtle – Henry’s parents and Elle’s paternal grandparents
Joanne – Henry’s wife in the 1970s
Mary – Henry’s wife in the 1980s
What is The Paper Palace, anyway?
The Paper Palace is a group of cabins in Cape Cod’s Back Woods, which are filled with kettle ponds.
Eleanor’s grandfather Amory was a sculptor who inherited a house (The Big House) on a pond near the small Outer Cape town of Truro.
Amory built four one-bedroom cabins on the pond that he planned to rent out for extra income. He was running low on money so built the cabin interiors out of paperboard. He called the cabins “The Paper Palace.” He left the Big House to his third wife, Pamela, and the Paper Palace to Wallace.
The “paper palace” seems like somewhat of a metaphor for the flimsy family foundation on which Elle’s life is built. Her family has a history of sexual abuse, divorce, and infidelity, all of which have shaped Elle’s life.
Elle’s life in The Paper Palace (Chronological Plot Summary of The Paper Palace)
A lot of The Paper Palace is Elle’s family history, but the narrative jumps back and forth in time.
Here is an approximate list of the major events in Elle’s life:
Elle’s maternal grandparents were Amory (a sculptor) and Nanette (a New York socialite). Nanette divorced Amory when her daughter Wallace (Elle’s mother) and her son Austin (Elle’s uncle) were young.
In the early 1950s, Nanette married Jim, who sexually abused both Wallace and Austin.
After that, Nanette married Vince, a banana salesman. Nanette left him and got a villa in Guatemala in the divorce. Wallace’s brother Austin stayed there, but Wallace went the U.S. to attend boarding school.
Elle’s parents are Wallace and Henry. Wallace had an affair with a neighbor when Elle was four, and Wallace and Henry divorced after that. Henry remarried Joanne when Elle was about seven.
After the divorce, Wallace starts a relationship with Leo, a musician. He has two children, Rosemary and Conrad.
Elle meets a boy named Jonas one summer in Cape Cod in the 1970s, when she is nearly eleven and he is about eight.
About three or four years later, Elle, Leo, Wallace, Elle’s sister Anna, and Conrad are staying at the Paper Palace. Jonas is there as well, and he and Elle spend lots of time together. Anna and Conrad tease Elle about being a cradle robber. Conrad spies on Elle in the bathroom.
That winter, Elle wakes up and realizes Conrad has pulled up her nightgown and masturbated on her. He continues to do this and Elle is too afraid to tell anyone.
The summer Elle is 16 (circa 1982) Elle’s blended family heads to Cape Cod. Conrad watches Elle skinny dip, then rapes her in her cabin. Elle tries to tell her mother something has happened, but then reconsiders and pretends to be sick.
Jonas is also there and they attend sailing camp together. Elle feels like Conrad has ruined the Back Woods for her. Jonas senses something is wrong between Elle and Conrad and Elle finally confides in Jonah that Conrad sexually assaulted her.
Leo plans a family sailing day and Elle convinces Wallace to let Jonas join them. Conrad, Jonas and Elle go out in the sailboat. Conrad isn’t an experienced sailor.
The waves are rough and Conrad is knocked into the water. He is not wearing a life jacket and yells for Conrad and Elle to throw him the life preserver.
They don’t, and Conrad drowns. Elle and Jonas make a blood oath to keep the secret of how Conrad died. Jonas gives Elle a green glass ring.
The next summer, Jonas spends the summer in Maine instead of on the Cape. Leo moves out and Wallace miscarries their baby.
A year later, Wallace finds Elle’s journal, in which she’s written about the rape. Wallace confronts Elle, assuming that Leo raped her. Elle lets her think that.
When Elle is in her 20s, she is almost mugged in London. The mugger wants her to hand over the green ring glass that Jonas gave her. A Brit called Peter rescues her (and her ring) and they start dating.
Elle invites Peter to New York to meet Wallace, who emerges from her deep depression to entertain them.
The next year, Elle runs into Jonas in New York. Four years later, she thinks she sees Jonas at the Whitney Museum. She calls him and then lies to get out of a dinner with Peter’s parents to meet up with him. He makes her promise that if she is ever getting married, she will tell him.
Elle runs into Jonas’s mother in Cape Cod, who congratulates her on her upcoming wedding (apparently reported to her by Wallace.) Jonas’s mom says that he is also getting married, to Gina. Jonas and Elle argue again about her disappearing on him. Elle marries Peter.
A year later, Anna calls, crying. Elle meets her in Cape Cod and Anna says that she has advanced ovarian cancer. Elle tries to tell Anna about what happened on the boat with Conrad, but Anna is distracted. Sadly, Anna dies.
In the present, Elle and her family arrive in Cape Cod. She sees Jonas and Gina fighting. Peter gets called to Memphis for a story and Elle goes with him. Elle visits Conrad’s grave and goes to see Rosemary, who tells her that Conrad raped her too and that she is glad that Conrad is dead.
Elle sleeps with Jonas.
The next day, Peter says he saw Elle kissing Jonas’s hand in the kitchen. Elle reassures him, saying that she and Jonas don’t love each other that way, and that she was kissing Jonas’s hand because he burned it.
Later that night, she and Wallace discuss Leo. Elle tells her mother that it wasn’t Leo who raped her, but Conrad. Wallace tells Elle that there are “some swims you do regret.“
Elle wakes up the next morning and asks Peter to go swimming with her, but he wants to sleep. She can see Jonas waiting across the pond. She takes off her wedding ring “one last time” and heads out for a swim.
What Makes Elle Decide to Cheat With Jonas?
Elle had buried the traumatic part of her past (her rape and the part she and Jonas played in Conrad’s death) and tried to forget about it.
The oath they made to keep the secret about Conrad’s death, and the ring he gave her, were a dark kind of ceremonial promise.
So what made Elle decide to sleep with Jonas after all these years? She had plenty of opportunities. Both of them were in Cape Cod nearly every summer. They know each other’s spouses and families. They both seem to have ties to New York, so they could easily run into each other there, or arrange to meet.
I think it was her trip to Memphis and her conversation with Conrad’s sister Rosemary that finally absolved Elle of any guilt and shame she (wrongfully) felt about Conrad’s assault of her and also over Conrad’s death. I think this conversation finally gave her the freedom to consider being with Jonas.
Spoilers: Does Elle Choose Peter or Jonas at the end of the Paper Palace?
I urge you to read ALL the smart and insightful comments on this post! I can’t thank all of you enough for sharing your thoughts and hope YOU will join the discussion.
If you want a quick recap of some of the possible interpretations of the ending, I have listed them below.
Elle Chooses Jonas at the End of the Paper Palace
The Elle and Jonas are soulmates theory for all you true romantics!
Many commenters feel that, at the end of the Paper Palace, Elle chooses Jonas.
She clearly loves Peter, but feels that her relationship with Jonas is something she never let herself explore because of the trauma of her rape by Conrad and her guilt over the part she and Jonas played in his death.
After talking to Rosemary and realizing that Conrad was a monster, she feels free to finally explore her feelings for Jonas.
Before she goes out to swim, she takes off her wedding ring and squeezes it “one final time,” meaning that she won’t be putting it back on again.
Also, Elle’s mother tells her “two things you never regret, a baby and a swim.” Then she later tells her that “there are some swims you do regret. The problem is, you never know until you take them.”
Some readers interpret the as Wallace suggesting that Elle go explore her connection with Jonas and see where it goes.
Elle Chooses Peter at the End of the Paper Palace
The practical ones among us are on this train. Here is our evidence:
Elle gives Jonas his ring back. I get into the ring symbolism further down, but rings are meaningful in the story.
The fact that she’s taking her wedding ring from Peter off “one last time” could also mean that she will be leaving it on going forward
When she’s confessing all to Wallace about the rape and Conrad, Wallace says “I think you broke his heart when you married Peter.”
An image of young Jonas comes to Elle and she says, “I loved him too.” Past tense. But I must add that (sorry!) she also says (presumably of present-day Jonas) “I do not know him yet.” YET!
When Elle has the opportunity to tell Peter she slept with Jonas, she does not. When Peter says he “knows” about Elle and Jonas, Elle feels pure panic. She’s relieved when all Peter “knows” is that Elle kissed Peter, and even then she convinces him that she was just kissing his burnt hand.
If she were going to leave Peter, this would be the perfect opening for Elle to tell him that. But she doesn’t.
Some people in comments have pointed out the hummingbird clue. Elle sees one at the end of the book and remembers Jonas telling her that hummingbirds are the only birds that can fly backwards (thanks Joana for straightening me out.)
BUT Elle then says “If I could fly backward, I would.” Meaning that she can’t.
Elle then notices that the hummingbird’s wings make an infinity symbol, and she also says that her wedding ring is an “eternal” shape. She decides to do what no other member of her family has done: keep her wedding vows.
Elle Commits Suicide at the End
Okay, this theory is from comments and is more fringe, but I LOVE an out-there theory, IF it is supported in the text. And I think there is some evidence to support it.
There are several drownings in the book: Conrad, the old man in the pond, and Peggy (who nearly drowns but is saved by Wallace.)
There is a point in the story, after Conrad spies on Elle in the bathroom, when Elle contemplates suicide. She thinks about how she would kill herself, picturing tying a rock to her leg and jumping off the boat. She wants Conrad to feel responsible for her death.
On the other hand, she was a teenager at the time and very upset about Conrad spying on her in the bathroom. This could be a thing many children say, an “I’ll be dead and you’ll be sorry” kind of thing.
Elle Sleeps With Jonas One Last Time, and THEN Chooses Peter
Okay, this is my new personal theory at the moment.
When Peter says he “knows” about Jonas, Elle realizes what a terrible mistake she made.
As argued above, the fact that she does NOT admit to sleeping with Jonas is important. It would be the perfect opening to admit it to Peter. It would be so easy for her to agree with Peter that yes, she did it and she’s leaving him. But she doesn’t say that.
When Wallace says, “There are some swims you do regret, Eleanor. The problem is you never know until you take them” she means that she knows that Elle took a “swim” with Jonas.
Maybe that she knows Elle regrets it or thinks she will regret it. And that she understands that Elle had to sleep with Jonas to know that she wanted Peter.
The storm that night is a metaphorical one and after it, Elle’s mind is clear. The hummingbird reminds her that she can’t go backwards and needs to move forward.
Elle takes off her wedding ring “one last time,” meaning that she needs this one last “swim” with Jonas to close the book on them forever.
Themes (and Possible Clues) in the Paper Palace
Ring Symbolism in The Paper Palace
There is a lot of ring symbolism in The Paper Palace.
The green glass ring clearly symbolizes Elle and Jonas’s relationship.
Jonas gives Elle the green glass ring after Conrad dies. They have already made an oath to keep the secret of Conrad’s death and Jonas seems to see this ring as a sort of promise ring.
Peter saves Elle (and the ring) when she’s almost mugged in London.
Later, Elle meets Jonas in a diner New York. She tells Jonas about Peter, then leaves the ring on the table, symbolically ending her relationship with Jonas so she can be with Peter. She tells Jonas that she only wore the ring to remember what they did. Jonas tells her, “Peter isn’t the ring guy. I’m the ring guy.”
In Cape Cod (in the present), Elle finds the green ring in her jewelry box. She tells Jonas that she found it and gives it back to him, another rebuffing of him.
In the final scene of The Paper Palace, Elle takes her wedding ring off “one last time” and leaves it when she goes to meet Jonas in the pond.
Drowning Symbolism in The Paper Palace
I noticed all the water symbolism in the book, but I hadn’t really noticed the drownings until the commenters who believe Elle committed suicide pointed it out.
Peggy, a girl Elle used to swim with, nearly drowns in a pond while Elle is watching. Wallace drags her out and gives her mouth to mouth.
Book Club Discussion Questions for The Paper Palace
The comments on this post have a LOT of great ideas, but I’ll pull out a few:
Do you think that Elle choose Jonas or Peter and why? Do you agree with her choice? (This could take up the entire book club discussion and a few bottles of wine! The author thinks that Elle’s choice is clear, but if you read the comments there’s more than one opinion.)
How does the book’s inclusion of three generations of Elle’s family history give insight into the choices she makes? If I’d read this book in my twenties, I would have had a much different opinion than I do reading it now.
Discuss the symbolism of rings (see my analysis above here) in the story. Water is another big motif in the story. Plus The Paper Palace itself (see my analysis above here) also has a lot of symbolism.
A commenter on this post made a very important point: that talking about fictional characters’ experiences with trauma, sexual assault and sexual abuse can be extremely triggering to those who are survivors. If this is a book club choice, you might want to let members know.
In addition, it was pointed out to me that making a well-intentioned but badly worded comment about a fictional character’s choices or reactions can be hurtful to survivors of trauma.
I found this article by RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) on speaking with survivors of sexual assault and abuse really helpful and hope you do too.
Spoiler Discussion for The Paper Palace
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If you’re in a book club and looking for new ideas, here’s a book I think would spark a lot of interesting discussion (just like The Paper Palace):
The Christie Affair is the story of two women: novelist Agatha Christie and the fictionalized version of the woman Agatha’s husband is having an affair with. If you’re tired of reading women’s fiction about cheating husbands, me too, but this story has some surprises up its sleeve! If you’ve read it and want to discuss, come over to my Spoiler Discussion for The Christie Affair.
If your book club is open to historical fiction, mystery or romance, then check out my list of books that take place in New York during the Gilded Age.