‘The Misfortune of Marion Palm’

‘The Misfortune of Marion Palm’ by Emily Culliton, Knopf, 2017, 282 pages, $25.95

Every once in a while, a book so captures the contemporary climate, so rewards its readers, that they want pass the book on to every other reader they know. “The Misfortune of Marion Palm” is that kind of book. Knowing that it is a first novel from a new writer — Emily Culliton is a Ph.D. candidate in fiction at the University of Denver — makes it that much more engaging.

This new novel is ostensibly about upward mobility and family and coming of age and the ensuing scuffles with each in the 21st century. It is about struggling to provide; it is about gender; it is about education; it is about parenting.

But what makes the novel so inordinately special is the fact that it totally upends expectations at every turn.

And it is sharp and subversive — and inexhaustibly hilarious.

Marion Palm seems to have it all: Nathan, her independently wealthy poet of a husband; Ginny and Jane, her two adorable daughters who attend a private school; her good job; and a spacious home in Brooklyn Heights. Yet Marion is sort of sloppy, sort of overweight, sort of discontent.

So, to maintain her equilibrium, Marion embezzles. She doesn’t really consider herself a thief as much as she regards herself as “a woman who embezzles.” She’s really good at it. She’s already $180,000 ahead, having embezzled funds from her daughters’ school, where she works part-time in the development office.

She’s spent most of that money on family: on vacations, on a fancy refrigerator, on home improvements. In fact, she’s rather selfless about the money: “Nathan never grasped how collectively cheerless her clothes were.” But she’s rather practical, too. She’s put $40,000 aside for herself — just in case.

Now the school is facing an IRS audit.

But “The Misfortune of Marion Palm” refuses to devolve into another “on the road” fiction. Marion understands herself well enough to know she doesn’t want to leave Brooklyn Heights just yet. She doesn’t want to go far; she simply wants to disappear. So she retreats initially to a local and very seedy Days Inn and eventually ends up sharing rooms in Brighton Beach with a Russian woman who sets her onto a short career as a housemaid for very upscale high-rise residences.

The novel is told from the perspectives of nearly every character. Chapters are rarely longer than five pages; some are as short as one. Palm family members have the majority of the chapters. Others belong to a police detective, a missing boy, the Russian wife of a Russian “businessman,” and members of the school’s development office as well as board of trustees.

Time after time, Culliton’s keen and wicked observational skills are at play. Nathan is rarely referred to by his first name only; he is more frequently identified as “Nathan Palm.” Pettiness always sneaks through excessively solicitous board of trustees decisions.

And, time and again, Culliton’s incisive brilliance shows in even the sparest of sentences. Of neighbors, for example, she notes, “Nathan hates this couple, this family, with a wild passion usually reserved for social injustice and grocery stores on the weekends.”

“The Misfortune of Marion Palm” is as funny a book about a mother on the run as is likely to be found. It’s also a razor-sharp argument that the gifts we give our families and ourselves can often be as singular as we who acquisitively bestow them.

Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.