Nearly. Every. Single. Character in Emily Culliton’s superb novel is sociopathic — if not a self-serving narcissist, then at the very least a misanthrope. You can’t exactly root for any one of them, but nor can you close the book! You’re compelled to keep reading to the very end. And it’s worth it.
Let’s start with the titular Marion Palm, a 38-year-old married mother of two, who lives in a stylish section of Brooklyn, New York. Marion has one very impressive talent: she embezzles. Over the years, she’s been swiping cash from her daughters’ private school—to the tune of $180,000.
But now she’s on the run. The school is about to be audited, so Marion takes off—leaving her husband and two girls behind … which brings us to Nathan, Marion’s husband.
A feckless trust-fund man-child, Nathan once published a well-regarded book of poems but has written nothing of note since. Instead, he’s occupied himself by being unfaithful to his wife—and after she disappears, he is too self-absorbed to comfort his daughters over the loss of their mother.
Actually, the girls—Ginny, at 13, and Jane, only eight—are the two characters who are the least bit sympathetic, especially the younger. Then there’s a detective, coping with a dying cat, who manages to rise to near-heroic status. But everyone else — friends, school personnel, even young classmates — gives off a noxious cynicism.
Given such unlikable characters, it’s a wonder that the novel succeeds. But succeed it does. The author offers up a smart, biting satire—call it the discreet charm of the Brooklyn bourgeoisie—exposing the hypocrisies and entitlements of a certain class of urbanites. Her observations are piercing and often tinged with humor.
In one particularly funny scene—funny in a mordant sense—Marion’s 8-year-old daughter is playing with her Barbie dolls. She is busy marrying and divorcing them:
The divorces are simple, somber, and usually one other doll is in attendance: the lawyer. Most of her classmates’ parents are divorced … so she has the basic principle down.
Aside from the divorce rate, Culliton clues us in on Brooklynites’ obsessions — food (expensive and only in small amounts), body fitness, costly clothing, and enormous purses—all in the endless, shallow pursuit of “cool. ” Marion may dismiss this silliness for what it is, but she takes deep umbrage at the pretense of friendliness that masks snobbery, even hostility.
So she takes off and barely looks back.
Marion is, by her own admission, a sociopath. Her lack of guilt is a prerequisite for a special class of “women who embezzle”—who are talented, clever, and assertive to the point of brazen. If Marion regrets anything, it is that she took so little.
And this is how the author moves into feminism: through the back door. Marion knows that men share the same lack of guilt—but she also knows it is “socially more acceptable and admirable” in men than women. And isn’t she right? Isn’t there a part of us that secretly admires the daring of men who ransack billion dollar hedge funds? So when Marion considers her takings, she finds them puny. Guess what? Even in crime, there’s a glass ceiling.
I lied in the first paragraph that it was hard to root for any of the characters. We may not approve of Marion, but we do end up rooting for her. It’s not that her heart is in the right place, because it isn’t. It’s that Marion lives with a clarity of vision we applaud—she sees past the artifice into the truth of things. We learn, too, that she has been handed a raw deal in life, and we can admire, even envy, her drive to extricate herself from what gives her pain.
The book’s conclusion, along with an epilogue, is a total surprise—and, in a perverse way, satisfying. This is a remarkable read. You won’t always like the passengers, but you’ll love the ride. Recommended.
A former college English instructor, Molly developed LitLovers after teaching an online literature course several years ago. It was so much fun—even the students loved it—that she decided to take it public. If Molly’s not working on LitLovers, she’s sleeping.