The Misfortune of Marion Palm, Emily Culliton: Book Review

A new antiheroine embezzles her way into our hearts.

the misfortune of marion palm emily culliton book review
The Misfortune of Marion Palm Book Cover The Misfortune of Marion Palm
Emily Culliton
Fiction
Knopf
August 8, 2017
304

A wildly entertaining debut about a Brooklyn Heights wife and mother who has embezzled a small fortune from her children's private school and makes a run for it, leaving behind her trust fund poet husband, his maybe-secret lover, her two daughters, and a school board who will do anything to find her. Marion Palm prefers not to think of herself as a thief but rather "a woman who embezzles." Over the years she has managed to steal $180,000 from her daughters' private school, money that has paid for European vacations, a Sub-Zero refrigerator, and perpetually unused state-of-the-art exercise equipment. But, now, when the school faces an audit, Marion pulls piles of rubber-banded cash from their basement hiding places and flees, leaving her family to grapple with the baffled detectives, the irate school board, and the mother-shaped hole in their house. Told from the points of view of Nathan, Marion's husband, heir to a long-diminished family fortune; Ginny, Marion's teenage daughter who falls helplessly in love at the slightest provocation; Jane, Marion's youngest who is obsessed with a missing person of her own; and Marion herself, on the lam--and hiding in plain sight.

The antihero has long been a staple of pop culture. You have your Jay Gatsby, your Don Draper, your Walter White — deeply flawed men who nevertheless draw us into their tangled lives through an irresistible mix of misdeeds and charm. Much harder to pin down are iconic antiheroines, though they certainly exist. Why is this? I mean, I have a few ideas, and they all rhyme with “shmexism.” Whereas society often glorifies men who break the rules, flout authority, and lead secret lives, we are conditioned to be suspicious and judgmental of women who transgress. Luckily, in The Misfortune of Marion Palm—a knockout debut from author, Emily Culliton—we are presented with a compelling new antiheroine who may help tip the scales.

Marion Palm may seem like an average Brooklyn mom, overworked and underappreciated, but she has a secret. A big one. Marion has been quietly embezzling her daughters’ tony private school for years, collecting $140,000 that she will eventually store in a knapsack and take with her when she leaves her family’s brownstone for the last time. She leaves behind two young daughters and a hapless husband, and never looks back. Through Marion’s misdeeds and misadventures, and Culliton’s sharp, satirical writing, readers are forced to confront and question their perceptions of how a wife, mother, and middle-aged woman should behave.

Culliton front loads the novel with short, brilliant chapters, eagerly exposing the double standards that women of a certain age face, and using them to give us insight into Marion’s psyche. For example, Marion dresses herself in dowdy, ill-fitting clothes because she has realized that middle-aged women are often overlooked—even more so when they are deemed unattractive. It’s a terrible societal flaw, but one that perfectly serves a criminal mastermind. No one would ever suspect that their frumpy waitress is memorizing their credit card numbers, or that the dispassionate woman in their school’s development office is stealing money from tuition checks.

A homely woman is an invisible thing. This is her and her disguise. Her heart recognizes that she is on the lam and beats harder for her. This is a natural progression of criminal behavior. She is wrathful and sad that she must go on the lam. She will miss her daughters.

The money does not belong to her. There is no honest reason she should have it.

— excerpt from Emily Culliton’s The Misfortune of Marion Palm

The satire throughout the novel is pointed, funny, and relentless as Marion shatters one taboo after the other: she leaves her children and feels no remorse. In fact, she feels relief. She steals. She lies. She is out only for herself and her happiness. It feels shocking and exhilarating and radical.

Until it kind of doesn’t. Before Culliton fleshed out Marion’s backstory, in which we learn that she has been embezzling from various businesses for decades, she seemed like a bored housewife who had finally decided to live for herself (think Julianne Moore’s character in The Hours). But after learning that Marion has a history of stealing, of blank stares, of lying and feeling nothing, I began to wonder if something else was at play. Is Marion truly liberated, or just a sociopath?

It might seem like I’m feeding into the stereotype that a woman who leaves her family must be mentally ill, but that’s not what I’m trying to say. In fact, it’s provocative and even refreshing that Marion doesn’t feel much remorse when she leaves her daughters, as this plot line underscores a larger societal taboo: for some women, motherhood is simply tolerated. We are taught that all women should want to nurture others and to view bearing children as the greatest joy in the world. But for some women, this will never be the case, and they are not bad or broken for feeling this way. However, as a reader, there was just something about Marion that always seemed cold, searching, empty, and removed. I didn’t feel like I knew her at all, even after learning her life story and breathlessly following one con after the other for hundreds of pages.

But maybe that was the point, to paint her as a truly solitary being, misunderstood by everyone around her, comfortable in her skin only when siphoning funds from random strangers or slipping through doors when someone’s back is turned. She’s a cipher; perpetually adrift, but incapable of drowning.

Marion Palm is an expert on women who embezze. She does not think of women as embezzlers. Embezzlers are men; for women, embezzlement is a practice.

Women who embezzle do not live lavishly. The reason for the practice has nothing to do with status. It has to do with justice and enforced reciprocity. Women who embezzle will save money, pay some bills, and then buy a Jet Ski for their family. Women who embezzle will bid extraordinary amounts on rare Victorian dolls on eBay.

— excerpt from Emily Culliton’s The Misfortune of Marion Palm

Personally, I enjoyed the portraits of Marion’s children and trust-fund-poet-turned-lifestyle-blogger husband as much as her criminal capers. Culliton is particularly deft at capturing the push and pull between Jane and Ginny, and the adoration and repulsion that can exist simultaneously when siblings are several years apart in age. Culliton writes in artful, clipped prose (her style is perfect for readers who despise Hemingway and the run on sentence as a concept), and this plainspoken style is hugely effective when she is documenting the clear signs of PTSD and trauma in the girls. She doesn’t overdramatize the toll of Marion’s disappearance, but neither does she hide its impact, and the matter-of-fact nature of her writing underscores both the girls’ struggles and their resilience.

Despite the often dark and complex subject matter, this is a very funny book—especially when Nathan, Marion’s husband, becomes an agoraphobic blogger after her disappearance and begins presenting his family’s life online as a picture perfect, Instagram-worthy set of photos. Their life IRL, of course, is the polar opposite. This coping mechanism is a pitch perfect send-up of our image-obsessed culture and the intoxicating rush that online validation can induce. 

Whether you find privileged Brooklynites worthy of a Liz Lemon eye roll, or fit into this demographic yourself, it’s likely you’ll find The Misfortune of Marion Palm to be a delicious and smart read. Marion may have a knack for disappearing, but Culliton is definitely an author we should keep an eye on.

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Written by Justine Goode

LA-born reader. English major. Liberal with em-dashes.