The Misfortune of Marion Palm by Emily Culliton
I had a chance to meet and talk to Emily Culliton this past summer during a busy and crowded industry event in Brooklyn, and I’m sorry I missed that chance. I should have been reading this book back in the advance reading copy stage of publication so I could have announced to the world that to miss this book would be a huge mistake. Once I did start reading it there was nothing that could distract me from it, and there are very few books that I can say that about, lately.
Marion Palm isn’t your average Carroll Gardens mom; she’s a thief, and a good one at that. In short chapters sometimes no more than a page long we find out just how good a thief she is. Pages fly by and we discover that she’s embezzled $40,000 from her children’s tony private school. The book is fast and loose, and the sentences are crisp nails in this intricate coffin.
Oh, Marion didn’t just steal $40k; over the years at the school she’s lifted $180k. She’s no moron. Sprung from Sheepshead Bay, Marion dropped out of college and started working at a local diner where she ended up preying on frequent customer, a loser trust fund poet named Nathan. Culliton shifts the voice with great ease and even finds time to occupy the heads of Marion and Nathan’s children.
Nathan is curious at first, once Marion disappears and the water starts boiling around him, (hilarious communications from the board of trustees about the missing money) and he feels put upon to have such misfortune. He raises their daughters, and somehow we’re even treated to the disappearance of another minor character. It seems that the disappearing wife idea was so good and rich that Culliton had to double down on it. I don’t think the book needed this element but it gave us a break from what was going on. Marion ran out on her family with a kind of scary callowness that usually is prescribed to serial killers.
Holed up in the far reaches of Brooklyn, Marion rents a room from a Russian and then things get interesting. To the point where I felt the novel was cut short and could have gone on forever. It reminded me of Eat The Document, Dana Spiotta’s masterpiece about another disappearing woman. Culliton gives her characters a range of emotional depth that is enviable at every turn. Nathan is silently selfish, (a common trait of the 2017 Man) while Marion is possibly disturbed and broken, but these traits leak out like sweat. This is worth your time, find it, and read this great, great novel. I can’t wait to see what Ms. Culliton writes next.