At a first glance, reading the blurb and looking at the cover, The Paper Lovers does not jump straight out at a reader for it seems somewhat mundane and restraint. It is a story that revolves a handful of characters set in a somewhat unremarkable city with people living stereotypical suburban lives. And yet, if given the chance, the book really grips you with such intensity that it becomes a page-turner that you will not want to close until you are done.
The story revolves around Arnold Proctor, a middle-aged university lecturer and poet, his life and the way it goes wrong. Arnold meets Vera, a friend of his wife Polly, and this chance encounter turns into a lustful obsession that ends in the destruction of Arnold’s suburban, quiet life. On the surface The Paper Lovers is a story about infidelity, discovering God and atoning for one’s sins. However, once scratched the book gives such a deep and dark insight into obsession that even the most skeptical readers will be surprised at the intensity that they will experience on the pages. The handful of characters that the reader encounters are all privately obsessed with something. Arnold is obsessed with Vera, Vera is deeply devoted to her Christian God, Arnold’s wife Polly feels an immense hatred towards religion and the wannabe poet Ryan is fanatically interested in paper. Whether it is Arnold’s lust, Polly’s hatred of religion or Ryan’s obsession with art and paper, Woodward has created characters who show us that beneath the mundane and boring there are worlds of passion, love and hatred that are invisible at first glance.
This is the main strength of Gerard Woodward’s book. The story itself is not extraordinary, there are so many books that discuss the topics that The Paper Lovers focuses on. However, Woodward masterfully rotates the seemingly well-known themes and creates something brilliant and intense. It takes a truly great writer to create characters whose feeling we, the readers, get to experience so fully.
Arnold’s passion and lust emanates like a miasma from the pages and drags the reader in this unhealthy and ugly obsession. Even if the reader wants out it is impossible to put the book down as every page, every sentence makes us somewhat obsessed with finding out what is going to happen to these people and their various manias. However, the book does not revolve only around Arnold’s lust for Vera. Halfway through the book this lust is long gone and Arnold is left with a hole he needs to fill and ironically through his infidelity he finds God. Arnold finds the God that his wife Polly hates to such an extent that she would rather have her husband cheating on her rather than going to church, which once again is ironic as cheating is what brought God into his life.
All these little twists and turns are speckled throughout the story to show us the various, fascinating aspects that a person can hold within. Arnold’s obsession with Vera and later God is only matched by the rejected by Arnold, wanna be poet Ryan. His passion for paper really jumps out of the pages and grabs the reader by the throat. It is obvious that he is a disturbed young man but at the same time his creativity and his mania draws the reader like a moth to a flame. Although he comes and goes throughout the book Ryan is the example of what happens to some people when they are so fixated on one thing. Ryan burns out and he knows that this one work of poetry he has written is all that he will every produce. He explodes like a supernova in his paper passion to a glorious end and the reader can’t help but cheer for him and his poetry that conveys his love for paper so well.
As a whole The Paper Lovers is a well-hidden gem of a story that is worth the time of every reader. It is a great exploration of human nature and the hidden passions that we all hold within us that can be found even in the most mundane and unexpected places.
The Paper Lovers is available now, published by Picador.