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The Misfortune of Marion Palm

Review

The Misfortune of Marion Palm

At first glance, Marion Palm might look like a stereotypical Brooklyn mom, the kind of character we’ve all come to know through sitcoms, movies, cartoons and satire, if not in real life. She and her husband Nathan, a poet, live in a Carroll Gardens brownstone (which they purchased thanks to Nathan’s generous trust fund, not because he’s found the secret to becoming fabulously wealthy through poetry). They have two daughters, Ginny (13) and Jane (8), who attend the same progressive, wildly expensive private school from which Nathan himself graduated. Marion herself, who always has had a head for numbers, works part-time in the school’s development office, helping spearhead a fundraising initiative to build a new science wing.

But Marion has a bit of a secret. That head for numbers --- which she first exhibited during her very first waitressing job, back when she met Nathan years ago --- has stood her in good stead as she has secretly embezzled tens of thousands of dollars from the girls’ school over the course of the last several years. Unlike Nathan himself, Marion understood that his trust fund was never going to be enough to cover the girls’ tuition, not to mention their summer camps and family vacations, and improvements to the brownstone.

"...a novel that has much more depth than its somewhat cavalier tone and short, offbeat-titled chapters would indicate."

Now, as the school’s finances are being audited and more and more red flags are being raised, Marion knows her time is running out. So she fills a knapsack with $40,000 in cash, skips out on the check after treating her daughters to a last lunch at the local diner, and leaves Ginny and Jane at a CVS while she makes her way to Penn Station, intending to pay cash for a train ticket to some Midwest city where she can disappear and make a fresh start.

However, one thing leads to another, and Marion instead finds herself stuck in Brooklyn --- not the Carroll Gardens/Park Slope Brooklyn to which she’s recently become accustomed, but the blue-collar, slightly seedy Brooklyn that still exists in out-of-the-way pockets. An aimless Marion begins to wonder what’s next for herself, even as she spares few thoughts for what she’s left behind.

Which is a lot, as it turns out. Her husband is a serial adulterer, and her daughters are both fragile in their own ways. Although Marion was hardly a model mother even when she was on the scene, her inexplicable absence soon sends Ginny and Jane spiraling off into different self-destructive directions, while back at home, Nathan is reinventing himself as a lifestyle blogger with a penchant for food photography. Everything comes to a head as a hurricane bears down on Brooklyn.

Obviously satire is the order of the day here, but there are deeper issues at play as well. Marion’s seeming lack of a moral compass, her daughters struggling to define themselves just when they most need maternal guidance, her husband’s ongoing cluelessness (which Marion capitalizes on as much as it drives her away) --- all these elements produce a novel that has much more depth than its somewhat cavalier tone and short, offbeat-titled chapters would indicate.

Emily Culliton’s debut manages to be expansive, sad, bleak and funny simultaneously, offering fleeting but surprisingly perceptive glimpses into the minds and hearts of even the most minor characters, while also giving the reader deeper explorations of, in particular, Marion’s daughters, who are just beginning to figure out how to find their own way.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 11, 2017

The Misfortune of Marion Palm
by Emily Culliton

  • Publication Date: August 8, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 1524731900
  • ISBN-13: 9781524731908