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A Ship Made of Paper

A Ship Made of Paper

3.4 24
by Scott Spencer

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Daniel Emerson lives with Kate Ellis, and he is like a father to her daughter, Ruby. But he cannot control his desire for Iris Davenport, the African-American woman whose son is Ruby's best friend. During a freak October blizzard, Daniel is stranded at Iris's house, and they begin a sexual liaison that eventually imperils all their relationships, Daniel's


Daniel Emerson lives with Kate Ellis, and he is like a father to her daughter, Ruby. But he cannot control his desire for Iris Davenport, the African-American woman whose son is Ruby's best friend. During a freak October blizzard, Daniel is stranded at Iris's house, and they begin a sexual liaison that eventually imperils all their relationships, Daniel's profession, their children's well-being, their own race-blindness, and their view of themselves as essentially good people.

Editorial Reviews

Anne Tyler
“Spencer is a magnificent writer.”
Oscar Hijuelos
A Ship Made of Paper is an engagingly written, wickedly insightful, and passionate novel about desire, race, and fate.
People Magazine
"A searching study of the chaotic side of love."
“A searching study of the chaotic side of love.”
The New York Times
With his eighth novel, A Ship Made of Paper, Spencer reprises the theme of consuming love, but this time he makes his lovers adults in their late 30's. They are Daniel Emerson, who lives with his wife in all but name, Kate Ellis, and her daughter, Ruby, and Iris Davenport, married to Hampton Davenport and mother to Nelson, all residents of Leyden, N.Y., a Hudson Valley town where some of Spencer's other books have been set. Daniel is white and Iris is black, but race is less a subject of this book than a device it uses, as is the O. J. Simpson trial, compulsively followed by Kate, who writes magazine articles condemning Simpson as a murderer. Ostensibly, ''A Ship Made of Paper'' examines the consequences of Daniel and Iris's love and asks if it is worth the suffering it causes to those around them. In actuality, the book contrives its own kind of trial. The defendant in the case isn't love and its heedless imperatives, but the world itself, brought up on charges of being anti-ecstasy and deaf to ''the poetry that we are all capable of writing, if we can find the goddamned courage.'' Be warned, ladies and gentlemen of the jury: this contest is rigged. — Laura Miller
The Washington Post
This latest book in Spencer's long career is not his best. That honor still belongs to the nearly quarter-century-old Endless Love — despite its bad title and worse movie adaptation — with Waking the Dead a close second. Those books were like sustained fever dreams, nervy and hypnotic, while Spencer presents Daniel's obsessions in A Ship Made of Paper in a distinctly cooler tone, often with more telling than showing. Still, there are many compelling echoes of those earlier novels here. Few writers are more proficient with a simile (ears "as bright as freshly boiled shrimps"; eyes "as expressive as thumbtacks") or the perfect character-defining detail. And in a literary environment in which few male writers can deliver a decent sex scene, much less offer a fully fleshed romance, Spencer can do both with ease, making him both a writer's writer and a poster child for sensitive men everywhere. — Donna Rifkind
The Los Angeles Times
At bottom, A Ship Made of Paper is a John Updike book: a story of adultery among affluent East Coast people who may be lustful and selfish but are too civilized to do grievous harm. In fact, Spencer's prose tends to imitate Updike's — the local detail, the wit and irony, and the leisurely pace (which, without Updike's lyrical gift, often seems downright slow). But Spencer's intention, it appears, was to write a Joyce Carol Oates novel instead — a novel in which things go bang, in which real disaster is possible, in which romantic passion is indistinguishable from madness. — Michael Harris
Publishers Weekly
Spencer's latest novel should cement his reputation as the contemporary American master of the love story. Daniel Emerson is a New York City lawyer who has returned to his hometown of Leyden, N.Y., a picturesque Hudson Valley village, with his girlfriend Kate, a novelist, and her daughter, Ruby. Kate drinks and obsesses about the O.J. Simpson trial instead of writing fiction. Daniel finds himself falling in love with Iris Davenport, an African-American grad student at the local university. Iris is married to Hampton Welles, an investment adviser. The book records Iris and Daniel's affair from both perspectives and poses the question, is their fleeting happiness really worth so much ruin? For ruin there is a-plenty: Daniel thoroughly humiliates Kate, destroys his financial status, becomes a subject of gossip in the village and inadvertently mauls Hampton in an accident with a roman candle, making it almost impossible for Iris to leave him. Spencer is an unerring writer. He describes the two couples at a local concert: "From time to time, Kate must glance at Daniel. His eyes are closed, but she's sure he's awake. Hampton takes Iris's hand, brings it to his lips, while she stares intently ahead. And then, Kate sees Daniel glancing at Iris. Their eyes meet for a moment, but it has the impact of cymbals crashing. It is a shocking, agitating thing to see. It's like being in a store with someone and watching them steal something." Kate's violated sense of order is captured in perfectly chosen metaphors. This book, in which matters of sex and race are treated with unusual frankness, could well be both the critical and commercial surprise of this spring season. (Mar.) FYI: PW will run an interview with Spencer in March. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Daniel Paris returns to his hometown with his partner and stepdaughter to escape big-city life. Once there, he begins an affair with a married African American woman whom he meets when dropping his stepdaughter off at daycare. What starts as soulful attraction turns into sexual addiction, and Daniel throws himself into the affair while throwing away everything else in his life. The interracial aspect allows Spencer, author of seven critically acclaimed novels (e.g., Endless Love), to explore both subtle and overt forms of racism among liberals and conservatives and the heavy burden of living with a consciousness of race and the responsibility of setting an unimpeachable example. He contrasts this to the mostly unacknowledged luxury of being white and representing only oneself to society. The novel is a page-turner, with crises scattered throughout, but it is also peopled with well-developed characters who live in a carefully depicted rural college town. Exhausting in its intensity, this well-written novel is recommended for public libraries.-Rebecca Stuhr, Grinnell Coll. Libs. Grinnell, IA Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
From Spencer (The Rich Man’s Table, 1998, etc.), a rich and highly textured account of life, love, envy, and disappointment in a Hudson Valley town. Leyden, New York, is one of those quaint little burgs with the good fortune to have been dirt-poor for so long that no one ever bothered to put up strip malls or subdivisions nearby. Hotshot lawyer Daniel Emerson was born there, but he made his reputation and fortune in Manhattan and never intended to move back—until he lost a case defending a black drug czar and found his life suddenly in serious danger. So he dropped out of the fast lane and settled into a sluggish small-town practice in Leyden, moving into a house with his writer girlfriend Kate Ellis and Kate’s young daughter Ruby. At Ruby’s preschool, Daniel meets Iris Davenport, a young black graduate student whose son Nelson is one of Ruby’s classmates. Iris is married to Hampton Welles, a prosperous black investment banker who spends most of his time in Manhattan. Daniel, at 36, is getting a head start on his midlife crisis, and the first symptom is Iris, with whom he becomes quickly infatuated. That Kate is an old-style southern racist (she’s now covering the O.J. Simpson case for several newspapers), and that Hampton is an insufferable prig capable of detecting racism in the way Leyden’s traffic light changes, help make an affair inevitable. And, shall we say, trouble ensues. Amid it, we also meet an insolvent patrician, his New Age wife, a blind art historian, two runaway juvenile delinquents, and a crooked cop—in other words, the people of your typical Hudson Valley town. What they all have to do with one another isn’t obvious at first, and it’s to the author’s creditthat he manages to connect their lives in a way that seems almost self-evident by story’s close. Subtle without being obscure, a splendidly intricate tragicomedy of manners in the tradition of Saki—full of horrible, delightful, and vivid eccentrics.
“A Ship Made of Paper” rocks with suspense and daring.
Chicago Sun-Times
“Here’s a love story that you can recommend, without blushing, to other adults.”
The beauty of this novel lies not only in the telling but in its commitment to the passionate life.
Francine Prose
Scott Spencer has a genius for observing dramatic everyday moments.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
P.S. Series
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Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Ship Made of Paper
A Novel

Chapter One

Daniel and Hampton were paired by chance and against their wishes. They were not friends -- Hampton did not particularly like Daniel, and Daniel had every reason to avoid being alone with Hampton. But Daniel's girlfriend or partner or whatever he was supposed to call her, Kate, Kate went home to relieve the baby-sitter who was minding her daughter, and Hampton's wife, there was no ambiguity there, his wife, Iris, with whom Daniel was fiercely in love, had gone home to look after their son. Daniel and Hampton stayed behind to search for a blind girl, a heartsick and self-destructive blind girl who had run away from today's cocktail party, either to get lost or to be found, no one was sure.

The searchers, fourteen in all, were each given a Roman candle -- whoever found the lost girl was to fire the rocket into the sky, so the others would know -- and each of the pairs was assigned a section of the property in which to look for Marie.

"Looks like you and me," Daniel said to Hampton, because he had to say something. Hampton barely responded and he continued to only minimally acknowledge Daniel's nervous chatter as they walked away from the mansion through an untended expanse of wild grass that soon led into a dense wood of pine, locust, maple, and oak. Aside from the contrast of their color -- Daniel was white, Hampton black -- the two men were remarkably similar in appearance. They were both in their mid-thirties, an inch or so over six feet tall, broad-shouldered, reasonably fit. They were even dressed similarly, in khaki pants, white shirts, and blue blazers, though Daniel's jacket was purchased at Macy's,and Hampton's had been sewn specially for him by a Chinese tailor in the city.

Two years after he was kicked down the stairs of his apartment building in New York City, which shattered his wrist, chipped his front tooth, and, as he himself put it, broke his heart, Daniel Emerson is back in his hometown, driving Ruby, his girlfriend's four-year-old daughter, to her day care center, called My Little Wooden Shoe. The drive is ten or fifteen minutes, depending on the weather, and though Daniel is not Ruby's father, nor her stepfather, it usually falls to him to take the little girl in. Daniel cannot understand how she can so willingly and unfailingly absent herself from the beginnings of her daughter's day; Ruby's mother, Kate Ellis, cannot bear to rise early in the morning, nor can she bear the thought of having to deal with Melody, or Tammy, Keith, Tamara, Griffin, Elijah, Avery, Stephanie, Joel, Tess, Chantal, Dylan, or any of the other Wooden Shoers, not to mention their fathers and their mothers, a few of whom Daniel knew thirty-two years ago in this very town, when he was Ruby's age.

It's fine with Daniel. He welcomes the chance to do fatherly things with the little girl, and those ten morning minutes with dear little four-year-old Ruby, with her deep soulful eyes, and the wondrous things she sees with them, and her deep soulful voice, and the precious though not entirely memorable things she says with it, and the smell of baby shampoo and breakfast cereal filling the car, that little shimmering capsule of time is like listening to cello music in the morning, or watching birds in a flutter of industry building a nest, it simply reminds you that even if God is dead, or never existed in the first place, there is, nevertheless, something tender at the center of creation, some meaning, some purpose and poetry. He believes in parental love with the fervency of a man who himself was not loved, and those ten minutes with Ruby every weekday morning, before he drops her off at My Little Wooden Shoe and then drives over to his office, where he runs a poorly paying, uneventful country law practice, in the fairly uneventful town of Leyden, one hundred miles north of New York City, those six hundred sweet seconds are his form of worship, and the temperamental eight-year-old black Saab is his church.

Or was, actually, because, unfortunately, this is no longer the case. The drive is still ten minutes, Ruby is still snugly strapped in her child safety seat in the back of the car, her sturdy little body encased in lilac overalls, her short-fingered, square hands holding a box of raisins and a box of grape juice, and today she is commenting on the familiar landmarks they pass -- the big kids' school, the abandoned apple orchard where the wizened old trees wreathed in autumn morning mist are so scarily bent, the big yellow farmhouse where there is always some sort of yard sale, the massive pasture where every July the county fair assembles, with its cows and snow cones, Ferris wheels and freaks -- but today it is all Daniel can do to pay the slightest bit of attention to Ruby, because his mind is seized, possessed, and utterly filled by one repeating question: Will Iris be there?

Daniel has been carrying the unwieldy weight of this desire for months now, and so far his behavior has been impeccable. When it comes to Iris the rules he has made for himself are simple: look but don't touch, long for but don't have, think but don't say. All he wants to do is be in the same room with her, see what she is wearing, see by her eyes if she has slept well, exchange a few words, make her smile, hear her say his name.

Until recently, it was a matter of chance whether their paths would cross. Iris's deliveries and pickups of Nelson were helter-skelter, one day she'd have him there at eight o'clock, and the next at nine-thirty -- it all depended on her class schedule at Marlowe College ...

A Ship Made of Paper
A Novel
. Copyright © by Scott Spencer. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Francine Prose
Scott Spencer has a genius for observing dramatic everyday moments.
Anne Tyler
“Spencer is a magnificent writer.”
Oscar Hijuelos
A Ship Made of Paper is an engagingly written, wickedly insightful, and passionate novel about desire, race, and fate.

Meet the Author

Scott Spencer is the author of nine previous novels, including A Ship Made of Paper, Waking the Dead, and the international bestseller Endless Love. He has written for Rolling Stone, the New York Times, The New Yorker, GQ, and Harper’s, and has taught writing at Columbia University, the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Williams College, and for the Bard Prison Initiative. He lives in Rhinebeck, New York.

Brief Biography

Rhinebeck, New York
Date of Birth:
September 1, 1945
Place of Birth:
Washington, D.C.
B. A., University of Wisconsin, 1969

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Ship Made of Paper 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 24 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As much as I enjoyed Scott Spencer's latest novel, I must say it left me feeling very ambivalent and unsure as to how to reconcile the emotions it left me with. As a black woman in a committed interracial relationship, this book was of particular interest to me. I was looking forward to seeing how such a fantastically gifted writer would handle such a sensitive and volatile issue. Much of the social interactions, unspoken mores and certain aspects of the characters ring true. I actually know people like Hampton Welles. I most sympathized with Daniel, the best developed character in the book. One truly got a sense of his torment and the astronomical price he had to pay to attain the one thing worth living for(and he never really got it). It truly left me with a sense of hope and despair; the resolve of these two tragic characters to contunue on this perilous and bumpy road and the anticipation of a possible love child with the former, and the complete and utter powerlessness of these two thrown together in a relationship that cognitively they know can only end in disaster as it exerts its ripple effect of pain and confusion with the latter.....Very Bittersweet
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was my first Scott Spencer novel and it truly consumed me. Excellent exploration of race in America through the lens of an interracial relationship. It was throughly fascinating to see it through the eyes of a white male loving an African American female with an extremely successful black husband.It dealt with issues that makes a novel great: infidelity, the legal system (juxtaposed against O.J. trial) and everyones' demons when it comes to race relations.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was stunning. This was my first Scott Spencer book and I was so amazed at his writing. The characters were so interesting and intriguing. Why did Daniel fall for Iris? Why did Kate leave her NY life and put up with Daniel? Why did Iris stay with her husband? I love books that don't complete things in a nice pretty package because that isn't real life. Life is hard and complicated and this book was a good example of people trying to make their way through the life they chose and how tragic things can turn. Nobody intentionally meant to hurt anyone but it happens. I hated for this book to end. If you like emotional stories, this is for you.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A catchy title, but unfortunately, I never found myself caught up in the plot. I thought that the characters were poorly developed; each seemed so one-dimensional. I never bought into the love affair between the two main characters. Even at the end of the book, I never figured out why they fell in love. Considering the overall theme of the book, it lacked any sense of emotion. My book club picked this as a selection and we chose not to even discuss it due to everyone's lack of interest in it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I picked up this book after reading a review in 'O' magazine. After letting it sit for a week or so, I finally picked it up. I must say, after that I could not put it down! Although Daniel always seems to be in the wrong place at the right time...Iris' house, the woods, Iris' house again..this time with a gun being there too, I enjoyed this book. It's fiction, a love story, passionate, daring,consuming, forgiving. We should all love so deeply? To give up everything? The opinons on that are as vast as the universe. The ending left much to be desired. I guess we as readers have to form our own endings based on our feelings about the subject matter. Do they make it together or not?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is my favorite author but it is not his best
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HOTMOMMY777 More than 1 year ago
This book was very well written. It was very descriptive and detailed which I like because I can place myself at the scene of what is going on. I thought the book dragged a slight bit in the beginning but it picked up quickly. Overall I would say this book was good. The only negative would be the ending. It didn't really have one, which is kind of upsetting when you invest time into a book only to be left wondering what happened to so and so and how about this one and that one.
Carajoy More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. I felt the ending could have been a little stronger, but the intensity and honesty of the characters are both touching and humbling.
TulaneGirl More than 1 year ago
An unapologetic book about adultery and interracial relationships. It's beautifully complex in both theme and style. The writer interweaves snippets of the ending chapters which he then puts together quite powerfully.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book had the worst grammatical and sentence structure that I have ever witnessed. I understand fully that the style of the literature is what makes a writer unique, yet the rules of grammar and sentence structure apply to us all. The paragraphs of this book read like one unending sentence, and like a very confused thought.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am still not sure whether this novel depressed or uplifted me. On one hand, it can be seen as the triumph of love despite racial tension, prior attachments and violence. On the other hand it portrays the tragedy of a love that brings remorse to all involved and then can never fully be realized anyway. I thought the book dealt brilliantly with social issues, using the OJ Simpson trial to illustrate the greater racial tension that exists in the novel. Some of the events in the novel, however, are a bit too coincidental. They are symbolically fascinating, but make the book seem much less realistic and thus much less effective.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, one that I would suggest to a friend or coworker. Scott Spencer wove together all of the thoughts, ideas, and fears that some people hold about race and interacial relationships. I think he gives the reader a chance to view race, relationships, and infidelity through the lives of an African-American woman and a Caucasian male. It is great to see that through their differences, Iris and Daniel, they were able to love. What better story line than that?
Guest More than 1 year ago
A member of my book group suggested this book based on an excerpt she heard on National Public Radio. Unfortunately, after reading the book, she admits that the excerpt she heard was the only part of the book she enjoyed. The few other members who completed the book also voiced their disappointment with it. Personally, I struggled to get through the whole thing as I found it pretty boring. I didn't enjoy any of the characters and never felt the passion between the two lovers. The only portion I found entertaining was the chapter on the storm. I also found the ending to be anti-climatic and found myself happy that I had finally finished it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Generally, I liked this book, however, as a former speech therapist, having dealt with many aphasic patients, I just couldn't get past Spencer's contrived portrayal of Hampton Welles' global aphasia being a result of suffering an injury to his throat with a Roman candle. Huh? Had Mr. Spencer done his homework on this matter, he would have found that (1) Global Aphasia is somewhat rare and (2) Aphasia is the result of a brain injury (usually thrombosis or embolism from a stroke) and NOT the result of a throat injury which, by the way would likely have rendered Hampton unable to phonate. Perhaps he was saying that Hampton suffered a stroke as a result of the firework hitting his throat however, it more than likely would have killed him in either case. Nevertheless, he was able to evoke strong feelings toward his characters (I wanted to smack the little black kid on several occasions) by way of his prose. I did think Daniel's portrayal as being a magnet to tragedy, bad decisions and being in the wrong place at the wrong time somewhat contrived. The collective incidents in the book made his character somewhat unbelieveable. Nevertheless, Spencer made it easy to see how many lives can be affected by one ill-conceived decision or choice.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am a black female and I must say that after having read this book, I am a little upset by some of the references made by Spencer in the book. For example, what does he mean by having Iris say that it is so much work being black?' What exactly is so hard about being black????? Would he ever have a white character say it is so much work being white or a Jewish character saying that is so much work being Jewish? I also had some problems with his representation of Iris's husband. I don't know, I just came out of it feeling like the black characters in this book were more like what Mr. Spencer thinks about black people rather than what is actually true about black people.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The main characters are complex, but not murderous or evil. The townspeople don't suffer from that smarmy, 'just folks' stereotype or the other extreme: the distrustful, backwoods weirdos. There is an interesting echo of the Daniel/Iris affair in the Ferguson/Marie story. These are not idealized people, but they are open to themselves, and I like that. But I really like that the main characters are adults. I had a hard time with the teenager image in 'Endless Love.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Interesting and mostly compelling read about the dynamics of human relationships although I found the circumstances of Hampton's accident at the hands of Daniel somewhat contrived. Several other circumstantial events pushed the limits of credibility. The unresolved ending left me 'hanging out there'. Somehow Daniel's compulsive and addictive behavior does not ring true.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The ending alone makes this book worth the read.