Daniel Emerson is a lawyer who flees New York after a messy trial has ruined his outlook on life. He takes his long-term girlfriend Kate and Kate's four-year-old daughter, Ruby, back to his home town to start afresh. In the safety of the rural town, he settles into a comfortable, if somewhat easy, existence. But then life gets slightly more complicated when he notices that he is falling in love with Iris, the mother of Ruby's best friend.
A freak blizzard that traps Daniel and Iris in the same house for an evening is the perfect opportunity to embark on an elicit affair. Once begun, neither wishes to stop it. Iris, trapped in a marriage with a domineering partner, views it as a release from her humdrum reality; Daniel views it as the most amazing thing that has ever happened to him, because, for the first time in his life, he feels truly alive.
This might sound like a run-of-the-mill love story. But A Ship Made of Paper is far from that. It is a gripping read, mainly because it is written in the present tense, so there's a sense of immediacy and urgency which propels the story along at a furious pace.
Spencer is a deft writer; his characters are well drawn, believable and flawed. The plot is multi-layered, so there are plenty of diversions going on, and he is superb at throwing up some unexpected and heart-hammering narrative twists. But above all else, his intelligence resonates off the page.
This isn't just a story about two people having an affair, risking everything in the process, but because Iris is black and Daniel is white it's a fascinating exploration of race relations (without ever resorting to stereotypes or caricature) and societal expectations.
I loved this book and found myself itching to read it at every opportunity. As far as I'm concerned it's right up there with the Tortilla Curtain but I hasten to add that readers of Anne Tyler's work would probably enjoy this too.