With The Misfortune of Marion Palm, author Emily Culliton presents us with a dilemma.
From the beginning, we can take an accurate guess at the gist of the plot, the opening line “Marion Palm is on the lam,” providing a clear enough clue. But the details of Marion’s decision to abscond her life, her daughters, and her husband are still a mystery.
What do we know about Marion? We know that she has embezzled $180.000 from the upscale private school her daughters attend. We know that she has paid for family vacations, a much loved sub-zero refrigerator, and home renovations with that money. We also know that Marion’s husband Nathan is the heir to a trust fund that has gone bone-dry, a fact that he seems to completely ignore, but one that Marion is all too aware of. Needless to say, any respect she may have felt for her husband has long since withered.
More ambiguous perhaps are Marion’s feelings regarding her two daughters, Ginny and Jane. While on the run with the money she’s carefully and cunningly stolen, she confesses to missing them, but then turns right around and muses that those feelings will undoubtedly go away. In one scene, Marion decides to change the color of her hair, lest should someone she knows recognize her. She looks around the hair salon, thinking she judges all these women she doesn’t know as much as they are in that moment judging her, women from a different social class to the one she’s used to. Marion suddenly reflects upon a moment from her past:
“She remembers when her mother stopped liking her. It happened one evening at dinner when Marion was sixteen; her mother passed her the potatoes and wished Marion would just go away.” Marion comes to the conclusion that someday perhaps she would look at one of her daughters in the same way, and seems comforted by the fact that has spared them the fate of being recipients to her loathing.
Culliton presents the story from several points of view, including Marion, Nathan, and their two daughters. But there is also the voice of the policeman in charge of Marion’s case, the school’s Board of Trustees, and Nathan’s off-again-on-again girlfriend Denise. Multiple POVs can at times be blatantly obnoxious, but here they help to add substance to an otherwise cut-and-dried case of a runaway housewife.
Marion Palm’s vanishing act affects everyone she knows, and the fact that it’s not limited to her direct family makes the novel more complex in its structure. It’s in truth less a tragedy than it is a comedy, beginning with Marion’s different thoughts of where she should hide, and finally deciding on staying close to her Brooklyn neighborhood. Nathan starts a blog about his wife’s disappearance, which feeds beautifully into his narcissistic persona. Both of Marion’s daughters unravel in different ways, but share a common trait in shedding their childhood vulnerability, and in doing so, becoming a bit more like their mother.
Marion herself is an enigma, and the ending doesn’t really give any answers to the puzzle that is her mind. We hear Marion’s voice telling her story, but we don’t quite trust that she’s being completely honest with us. Her modus operandis also appears a bit flawed regardless of what she has managed to get away with, when she takes up employment as a cleaning woman for a rich Russian family (which unbeknown to Marion are in reality Russian mobsters) and impulsively decides to funnel money from the teenage daughter’s account into her own. But soon we learn that this particular theft is more of a challenge than precipitous action on Marion’s part; she has taught herself Russian to steal the teenager’s passwords for the accounts, and tells herself that she does it “because she can.”
Whether stealing from the Russian mob will prove Marion’s downfall or conversely, result in her ultimate triumph remains to be seen. In the meantime, her family becomes less of a reality for her, and more part of a strange dream. Something that perhaps is based on a reality of some sort, but certainly not Marion’s reality. Not anymore.
If readers are looking for an explanation of Marion’s decision to run out on her family, especially her daughters, Culliton doesn’t actually provide one. We are privy to the knowledge that motherhood is something Marion never really wanted, but was part of the package to a lifestyle she craved. Now in possession of money that allows her the freedom to be who she really is, Marion no longer feels the need to sustain something which she has never been. In addition, the novel’s name is seemingly a misnomer, since the only misfortune of Marion Palm is apparently her unwillingness to continue living a life that she doesn’t want to live.
Some reviews have compared The Misfortune of Marion Palm to Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette, that also tells the story of a runaway wife and mother. But in truth, Marion and Bernadette are not very much alike. If she is to be equaled to another fictional character, it would serve better a comparison to Marion Crane, Hitchcock’s anti-heroine in the film Psycho. Let us remember that Marion Crane also steals a large sum of money from her employer and flees with it, intending to make a life with her boyfriend, but unfortunately runs into Norman Bates instead.
Although Marion Palm steals the money only for herself and a new life without past ties, we can’t help but wonder if she’ll someday have the misfortune of encountering a Norman Bates all of her own. In the meantime, Emily Culliton’s unapologetic protagonist is someone we can’t help but condemn and cheer on in equal measure, her lack of guilt and second thoughts a somewhat refreshing form of honesty.