The Misfortune of Marion Palm
by Emily Culliton
Published 2017 by Knopf
$25.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1524731908
By Noah Sanders
The opening line of Emily Culliton’s excellent debut novel, The Misfortune of Marion Palm, is a deceptively simple set-up for the rest of the book: “Marion Palm is on the lam.” The book does revolve around the disappearance of its titular main character, but it is equally concerned with the effects—both good and bad—of her vanishing on those around her. Marion Palm, as the book begins, has stolen $40,000 from her employer—an upscale private school her daughters attend—left these same daughters in a CVS, and has taken off for good, leaving her ineffectual husband, Nathan, to sort it all out. This isn’t a book about a grand escape, though. Marion doesn’t roam far and her goals are neither specific nor especially ambitious. She runs because she needs to escape the person she’s become—a mother, a part-time employee at a prep school, a wife. She runs to shed the disguises she’s worn for so long, to rediscover who she once was. Culliton, a writer to keep an eye on, allows Marion’s disappearance to be a catalyst for the entire Palm Family—Nathan and the two daughters, Jane and Ginny. This a story about the people we become, the complex identities we don and what occurs when those identities are removed, voluntarily or not.
“She’s been disguising herself for years,” Culliton writes early on when Marion decides to chop and dye her limp, brown hair, “and this is another round.” Marion is the type of character restricted by her lack of ambition, her lack of knowing just what it is she wants to do. The author paints her as a sponge of sorts, a generally inoffensive person who’s overly helpful, who allows others to spill their hopes and dreams and fears and insecurities, but never exposes her own. Over the course of The Misfortune of Marion Palm—a title that seems more and more relevant the deeper you get into the book—we see the choices, or the lack thereof, that have made Marion’s life. When Marion and Nathan, a clueless trust-fund kid, have sex for the first time, Culliton writes, “In a rush he enters her, and it’s the first she’s had sex without a condom, and the feeling breaks her apart. Nathan’s selfishness courses through her, but she feels entirely required.” Marion, up to her escape, exists only to please others, a job she is quite good at. But the identity, a helpful mother and wife, grows heavier and heavier, her only alleviation the small control she feels when she embezzles. Which she does, a lot.
Even Marion’s escape is small and compartmentalized. She thinks about leaving New York City, but gets worried at the train station and instead books a cheap flop near the park. She dyes her hair and sleeps for long periods: “Marion feels as if she is repairing herself. She administers carefully to her own needs.” It’s hard to say Marion is on the run, because her escape is pockmarked by inertia. She never leaves New York City; she doesn’t even leave Brooklyn. Her escape is an interior one. She sheds the skin of everything she’s done to become the person she always was underneath. If “it’s most likely two children, Nathan, and a decade [that] have altered Marion on a molecular level,” then her familial flight is in pursuit of the whomever she was to begin.
Her disappearance has a similar effect on those she’s left behind. Nathan, a philandering poet with almost no idea how to exist on his own, is suddenly forced into the role of a single father. So consumed by his maintaining his own imagined identities—great dad, great husband, great writer—he never even searches for his missing wife. He simply expects her to come home. It’s a part of the identities they’ve created: Marion the responsible one on whom everyone can depend, Nathan, not so much. In Marion’s absence, he suddenly realizes “he has been making himself up for years” and that the person he’s made himself up to be isn’t that great of a person. His response though, is to barricade himself inside his house, turn even more inwards, to start a blog that paints his life in the rosiest of situations (missing wife or not).
This is an assured debut. Culliton slowly expands from the first page, gaining weight and credibility as the book, and the “search” for Marion, continues. There are a bundle of narrative threads in the piece, but Culliton doesn’t get lost, each character—socialites of varying ethnic backgrounds, a vengeful school board, a detective searching for a missing boy—getting just the right amount of space, until she’s able to, with clear, concise, often beautiful writing, bring their lives back together again. She manages to do so with surprise and humor, and the sort of assured narrative choices writers far more experienced struggle to bring to the page.
Culliton doesn’t give her characters easy outs in The Misfortune of Marion Palm. To rediscover themselves, both Marion and Nathan willingly take on new identities, effectively switching out their old, used up lives for less worn ones. It seems that perhaps we are, from our birth onwards, nothing more than what others believe us to be, our true selves always being minimized, until there’s nothing left. Or until you decide to take it back, to run like Marion Palm. But even then, you’re only running from the identity you were to the identity you’ll become next.