On the Lam With a Brooklyn Mom

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THE MISFORTUNE OF MARION PALM
By Emily Culliton
282 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $25.95.

Half of the delight in Emily Culliton’s wholly delightful debut novel, “The Misfortune of Marion Palm,” lies in the way the book, like its title character, defies expectations at every turn. Who is Marion Palm? A mother of two from fashionable Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, married to a trust-fund poet, she works part time in the development office of her daughters’ prestigious private school. But Marion is no trophy wife with a casual drinking habit and a closet full of yoga pants. Rather, as Culliton announces on the novel’s opening page, she is “a homely woman” on the run with a knapsack containing $40,000 in cash — a small fraction of the money she has embezzled from the school over the years. Both of these details, Marion’s ordinary appearance and her extraordinary talent for appropriating other people’s money, are fundamental to her character and therefore to the book’s designs.

A theft, a fugitive: The plot, taken together with the novel’s short, immersive chapters and the escalating risks that confront Marion and her family, locates “The Misfortune of Marion Palm” somewhere on the thriller continuum. It would make good airplane reading — or motel reading, for readers who link Marion’s name and her swag to “Psycho.” But the book is also sunnier than that suggests, part satire and part Odyssey into the humbler precincts of Brooklyn (the borough where Culliton, now a graduate student at the University of Denver, was herself born and raised).

Marion Palm grew up working class in Sheepshead Bay. A college dropout, she is waiting tables — and stealing cash from the restaurant where she works — when she meets her future husband, Nathan, a regular customer who is 33 to Marion’s 23. He wears an expensive jacket and is much better looking than she is, but he is also shy and inexperienced with women. That means that Marion, simply by virtue of their repeat encounters, gets an opportunity she might not have had in the normal course of things. They date, awkwardly, and fall into bed almost lethargically; their physical connection is torpid rather than torrid. But diffident Nathan doesn’t seem to mind, and Marion is more a Marxist than a Freudian anyway: It’s money, not love, that makes her world go round. She heeds her mother’s advice to “make sure this sticks,” and marriage and children and the…

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