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Emily Culliton's The Misfortune of Marion Palm: A Novel

Emily Culliton
The Misfortune of Marion Palm
(Knopf, 2017)

Most people don’t walk out on their life. They have children, a spouse, parents, an aging golden retriever who needs daily arthritis medicine, the winter vacation in Florida six months from now and already paid for, the midnight hour to themselves in the (almost) renovated basement. The numbing comfort of the routine. But not Marion Palm, the heroine of Emily Culliton’s new novel The Misfortune of Marion Palm. She walks out on her two daughters, ages eight and thirteen, her poet husband with his dwindling trust fund, their Brooklyn brownstone, and her part-time job at her daughter’s private school.

In the basement of her house, Marion leaves all her credit cards, IDs, and cellphone, drowned in a glass of water. She buys her daughters cheeseburgers for lunch at a local diner and skips out without paying the bill. Marion takes nothing with her, aside from a knapsack filled with forty thousand dollars, in cash. She considers taking a train across the country, maybe to Chicago, but ends up renting a small room on Brighton Beach. Her grand escape lands her subway stops away from her former home. Arguably, the Brooklyn she runs to is oceans away from the Brooklyn where her baffled, abandoned family remains. For years, Marion has been embezzling money from her job at her daughters’ school. But her theft is about to be discovered and Marion takes off.

Culliton discloses the setup from the get-go. Facts written in short, at times abrupt, but action driven sentences, appear frank and unapologetic. A middle-aged woman, a Brooklyn mother, ordinary in life and appearance—is she relatable or absurd? The dichotomy of this hits us from the first pages of the novel. We progress into Marion’s flight, watch her daughters’ loss and confusion, her husband’s stupor, and the school’s Board of Trustees concentrated effort to retrieve Marion and the money she had stolen. We see Marion, settling in her new life, without the regret we would expect from a mother who abandons her children. The chapters are short and self-contained, the point of view switches, as Culliton begins to fill in the details. This novel is a bit like a coloring book—at first, mostly contours and silhouettes on the page. The further we read, the more shades of color the author adds, organically, without breaking away from her style and structure. The characters grow multi-dimensional and very much alive. The novel is a what if scenario that hits close to home yet remains outlandish. Most people imagine walking out on their life, but do not.

Perhaps most do not walk out because they believe, or hope, that their life will not let them go. They feel the noticeable weight of their presence and assume that the hole their absence would leave would never close. Marion feels barely visible. She has learned that her only path to being loved and accepted is compliance. Of course, this approach is not sustainable. Everyone who feels worthless, or loved for the wrong reasons, needs an outlet. For Marion, it’s embezzlement, her secret and her super power, the key to her identity. “Marion is not guilty, because the money was unwatched and therefore hers,” Culliton writes. “All that is unwatched or unguarded belongs to Marion or should belong to Marion. She watches, therefore she owns.”

Marion’s unremarkable appearance, ill-fitting clothes and extra weight are mentioned repeatedly. Marion herself is unwatched, by her husband, her colleagues and even her daughters. Thus it is easy for her to steal. While on the run, she obsessively reads stories about women who embezzled, stories of an invisible crime committed by invisible women. Women who do not feel loved or noticed, but they do feel needed. Marion’s older daughter knows this. She explains to a detective why her mother doesn’t have any friends: “She makes people feel weird about themselves. They need her. That’s different.” Being useful is not the same as being loved.

Glimpses into the characters’ past and future help to further shade in the details. The scenes of wealthy, privileged Brooklyn, pretending hard to be down-to-earth. The lonely detective who is half-heartedly looking for Marion while taking care of his dying cat. Marion’s husband’s artsy lover. The private school mothers, in yoga pants, with soft hands and hair, but merciless hearts. They have one thing in common: the decisions they make in the present are mostly a series of attempts to fix the consecutive mistakes of their past. Perhaps had Marion been less invisible, her mistakes would have caught up to her sooner and she would not have had a chance to run.

The difference between Marion and most people is like the distance between the Palm family brownstone and Brighton Beach—near and far. There is the terrifying thrill of imagining jumping off the subway platform along with the knowledge that it would be physically impossible to take that first step. Culliton’s novel is a story of a woman who is so much like us, and who we could never be. But it’s fun to imagine.


Marina Petrova

MARINA PETROVA's writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Brooklyn Rail, Late Night Library, Underwater New York and Sugared Water magazine. She lives in New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2017

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