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