Emily Culliton’s debut novel, “The Misfortune of Marion Palm,” is funny, pointed and very smart. With its madcap plot (embezzling mom goes on the lam), its dry tone, and its sly digs at upper-crust culture, the book does for Brooklyn what the novels of Maria Semple do for Seattle.
The title character, Marion Palm, has no apparent moral center and few likable qualities, and yet you will root hard for her — Culliton is that good at revealing what makes her tick, earning Marion our empathy, if not our admiration.
Doughy and plodding, Marion is married to clueless, unfaithful trust-fund baby Nathan. Early in the marriage, she figures out that the trust fund is dwindling fast, so she begins embezzling from her daughters’ private school to keep the family afloat (as well as in Sub-Zero refrigerators, endless remodels of their Brooklyn brownstone, and European vacations).
As the book opens, an audit is looming and Marion is on the lam; she carries with her $40,000 and a deep understanding of how to electronically manipulate bank accounts. “A homely woman is an invisible thing,” she thinks, and instead of going far away she simply relocates to a different part of Brooklyn.
The novel is told from various points of view: Marion, Nathan, daughters Ginny and Jane, who descend into trauma upon their mother’s absence, and the detective who sets out to find her. What each of these characters most wants is to be seen, really seen, by someone else, though they all exhibit this desire in quite different ways. Culliton is skillful at portraying their isolation without dragging down her comic story.
This is a hugely entertaining book, a page-turner, laugh-out-loud funny in some parts. But it is also a study in loneliness and family dysfunction, selfishness, motherhood (and fatherhood), and the sad way that it is so easy for anyone — homely or not — to be rendered invisible.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune.
The Misfortune of Marion Palm
By: Emily Culliton.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 282 pages, $25.95.