Miranda Cowley Heller’s The Paper Palace: the ending, explained

Miranda Cowley Heller’s The Paper Palace

The Paper Palace is about Elle, who is faced with the choice of choosing between her oldest friend and her husband. Let’s look at what happened and what she decided.

The article contains spoilers.

The Paper Palace and the events of the day

Elle is a 50-year-old living with her English husband Peter and her 3 children. Every summer, she goes to her grandfather’s camp in the Back Woods, named as The Paper Palace. It’s her favorite place in the world.

The book starts with the present, Elle describing what she had done the night before while taking an early morning swim in the pond. She has committed infidelity with her oldest friend Jonas, while everyone was inside the living room.

He confessed that he has always loved her, ever since they were children. He asks her to make a choice- him or Peter. And although she loves him too, lives are much more intertwined and complicated now to make a spontaneous decision.

Flashbacks of the past smattered through the chapters

While the present is where a choice is needed, the past has a far greater importance on the lives of people in the present. The past is not limited to Elle but also her mother, grandmother, father, stepfather and so many others.

Her sister Anne was very close to her. And although there was conflicts and difficulties between them in childhood, they became closer as they grew up. With her father, it was the opposite. His choices with lovers drove Elle so away from him that they were incommunicado.

Jonas. The boy who became a best friend and confidant.

Her mother, Wallace’s, relationships deeply impacted Elle and Anna. Her marriage to Leo, ended on a tragic note. That tragedy changed the course of Elle’s life. The death of her stepbrother Conrad.

His death was tragic but from her accounts, he wasn’t a good person either. He’d ogled her, been a pervert and had even raped her once. What defined this event was that both Elle and Jonas didn’t help him at the time, let him die and they kept everything a secret.

Relationships and feelings towards the two men

Peter is described as safe. Someone who gives her familiarity, comfort and safety. He loves her, is witty, is loved by his mother and gave her 3 amazing kids. However, he lacks the wildness which Elle secretly caves.

Jonas, on the other hand, gives her thrill, passion, wildness. He’s her best friend, her partner in crime, who knows her better than herself. And their bond has those invisible threads which tie them together.

So, with all these differences and divided feelings, who does she choose?

The ending and Elle’s decision

In the last few chapters, a few weeks prior and the 24 hours after the incident are told. At first, her decision seems obvious- Peter. How can she put him and her children through the trauma of the divorce and the complications?

Throughout the time, she seeks their familiarity, the comfort. She cuddles her kids, makes love to Peter and wraps herself in him and his scent, body. Early next morning, she asks Peter to wake up and swim with her. She says, “Come with me. End this.” Probably stop her from making the decision she was going to make. But he doesn’t.

She stands at the door and looks out to a figure standing on the other side. Jonas. She takes off her wedding ring, she descriptively squeezes it against her life line ‘one final time’ before placing it on the top step and going to swim.

That penultimate paragraph ambiguously tells us her decision. Jonas.

What we think and what does the author say?

That was a really tough decision. Her cuddles and love for kids, Peter, looked like a goodbye. Towards the end when she tells her secrets to her mother, her mother says, “There are some swims you do regrets, Eleanor. The problem is, you never know until you take them.” It looked like her mother knew her dilemma.

There is even a Reddit thread discussing about the novel and how it ends. In a feature with Penguin UK, the author tells surprisingly:

“I didn’t have any idea who Elle would choose. In fact, the choice was made in the last two, three pages of the novel. It was very important for Elle not to be ‘directed’ by me but to live out the process organically.”