One About the Brooklyn Mom Who Embezzles

The Misfortune of Marion Palm

By Emily Culliton

Few people really enjoy living in obscurity. This doesn’t mean that they desire citywide, nationwide, or worldwide visibility. It simply means they would like to be recognized for something, to standout in some way, even if that means being a little bad. And they certainly want their family and friends to see them, perhaps not to praise them but to at least acknowledge they contribute to the general weal. In many ways, Emily Culliton’s Brooklyn mom fits the bill, wallpaper in a family of four, well off but just not well enough, an uneducated misfit in an upper middle class of smarties, a misfit filled with cunning that feeds off a weak or missing moral core. She’s not likable but she’s enjoyable to watch. And that goes for the circle surrounding her: self -absorbed husband Nathan, rebellious daughter Ginny, lonely struggling daughter Jane, worried and infuriated fellow school workers and volunteers.

The plot is simple enough. Marion, married to once promising poet Nathan Palm, realizes that his small family inheritance is smaller than she thought when she married him. After spending sprees, children, and expensive private school education for the children, she decides to take advantage of her part time job as sort of comptroller at her daughters’ school and embezzle funds. She has a background, is skillful, and possesses an interest in the criminal practice and women who resort to it. She ups and leaves her family without even a goodbye after she gets wind the schools suspects her. But while good at stealing, she’s not quite as accomplished at navigating herself out of Brooklyn. So, she hides in plain sight and becomes, of all things, a cleaning woman to rich Russians visiting their apartment in Manhattan.

Left in the lurch, her family has to learn to adapt, which also means communicating with each other and coping with thoughts of why she left them. They don’t know about her extracurriculars. Prepare for loads of angst, for some growth, and some psychological scarring. Her other family, the school board and coworkers, collectively lose their minds.

The story offers up some plot twists, including a decidedly unrealistic and comical one at the end. Culliton tells it with present-tense, declarative sentences, often with character thought bubbles that are non sequiturs revealing aspects of their feelings and preoccupations and provide comedy. It’s an interesting style, but makes for a choppy journey. And, honestly, many will wonder where all this comedy reviewers cite is hiding. All in all, a good debut but not quite as stunning as reviews might lead you to conclude. w/c

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Do You Believe in Cheater Love?

The Arrangement

By Sarah Dunn

Hand it to Sarah Dunn. She knows how to grab your attention and hold it, whether you are on a beach or flying to one. The Arrangement deals in fantasy, the fantasy some couples may have after five, ten years of marriage, and kids, and responsibilities. What would it be like to shuck all that, to feel like a newly minted twenty-something, to be truly and passionately (as in sexually passionate) in love? Here’s one version, courtesy of Dunn, albeit laced with a strong cautionary. People, it seems, have other emotions in addition to love and these can be ugly and rear their heads to make the whole affair rather unpleasant.

Owen and Lucy have been married a while. They have traded their life in Brooklyn for the bucolic, and more affordable, life in Beekman, NY (ah, yes, know it well; went to Sylvan Lake, next door to Beekman, to swim as a youth). They try hard to have a child, eventually go the IVF route. Wyatt, their son, appears to be autistic and quite a handful. You can appreciate how the couple might like to have a break from the daily, trying routine. At a patio dinner with friends from the city, they learn about a married couple, gay men with children, who are experimenting with a six-month arrangement, complete with rules, allowing each to seek sex elsewhere.

It isn’t long before Owen and Lucy decide to give it a try. Owen hooks up first and quickly with Izzy, who turns possessive and hounding. Lucy’s friend Sally Bang, the only really interesting name in the book, puts Lucy in touch with a divorced acquaintance, Ben. He turns out to be something of an emotional dream. Owen is harassed; Lucy is in love. (Male readers may ask why Owen gets the nut and Lucy the bliss? Duh, how dense you are, sir.) You’ll never guess? You guessed, the landing is hard for both and their marriage.

Dunn tosses in a couple of other stories that only tangentially link to the main plot. There’s the kindergarten teacher, Mr. Lowell, who decides to transform into Mrs. Lowell. Consequences follow, but many readers will wonder where the heck do you even find a male kindergarten teacher? The other concerns billionaire Gordon Allen and his wife, his fourth, a former cocktail waitress, whom he married spontaneously, so quick that he plumb forgot to have her sign a prenup. Talk about fantasy! Perhaps there are lessons in these tangents? The Lowell’s marriage appears to not just survive the change but flourish, whereas Gordon’s does what you’d expect, except for something of a novel reason.

Not to be too hard on the novel, because Dunn never intended it to be deathless prose, it’s perfect for the summer. It moves as quick as a summer thunderstorm. It often is hilarious, at least in the first half. And for those with thoughts of straying, of testing if the grass is indeed greener on the other side, of harboring any ideas of a similar arrangement, it is a kernel of reality. w/c