‘Misfortune of Marion Palm’ author Emily Culliton imagines the small scale embezzlement of a mom struggling to keep up with New York living costs
Never cross a Brooklyn mom.
That’s a lesson of “The Misfortune of Marion Palm,” a new novel about a Brooklyn Heights mom on the lam after embezzling a small fortune from her kids’ private school. Out August 8, Emily Culliton’s debut effort has already been the subject of much buzz in publishing circles due to her readable portrayal of the financial travails of New York’s creative class.
While Culliton’s background is in theater and literature, her interest in the role money plays in our lives was partly piqued by her graduation from college around the time of the Great Recession. “I remember feeling a sense of financial doom and grappling with the idea that our lives would be so different from that of our parents,” the 33-year-old tells Moneyish. She wound up doing admin work at a college at New York, where she found literary inspiration in “not a great time.” “I was ‘assisting’ and ‘coordinating,’ verbs that made me angry,” says the Park Slope native currently finishing her PhD at the University of Denver.
“Misfortune’s” titular character is a gifted woman from a working class background who didn’t complete higher education. She marries what she thinks is a Trust Fund Baby for the good life, only to find that the net worth of the Artistic Type doesn’t live up to hype. Palm works part-time as an under-appreciated accountant at a Brooklyn private school, where she steals to pay for her kids’ education and vacations to Europe, She then abandons them so the family won’t be dragged down with her. “I love New York, where the best thing is the diversity,” Culliton says of her decision to set the book in the hipster borough. Though she doesn’t have kids, she’s “concerned we’re losing that” diversity because of the costs.
With the help of Google, Culliton taught herself how to embezzle. “I’m interested in small-scale crimes, stealing $4,000 from a mom-and-pop store,” says Culliton, who literally Googled “how to embezzle.” Her research takeaways include how the proceeds of such financial crimes are often spent on mundane day-to-day expenses, with typically just one extravagant expense (a Sub-Zero fridge in her heroine’s case.) Embezzlement, she says, often starts small and in Palm’s case, as a way to get back at an unappreciative employer. “It’s an emotional crime” too, notes Culliton.
Her book, which took four years to write, is also a look at how technology has shaped our lives. The main character can’t buy a train ticket out of town because she doesn’t have a credit card. She also ditches her cellphone and computer as she goes on the run. “I wanted to question what it’s like to exist in New York without a credit card and phone…it’s isolating,” says Culliton. “I’ve been poor in Brooklyn. I know it’s an alienating experience.”
At its heart, her novel is also a sort of feminist tract for semi-professional woman who don’t identify with Sheryl Sandberg. The protagonist is forced into action because her husband can’t pay the bills. Her colleagues at school don’t think of her as a threat because she’s a part-time mom. “The system doesn’t reward the choices she makes,” Culliton says. “Though in some way, she really wants the credit.”
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