Emily Culliton’s highly entertaining debut novel begins, “Marion Palm is on the lam.” From that point forward, we are all on the run, with her, with her baffled husband, her confused children, her desperate and somewhat cranky colleagues at the private school whose funds she has skimmed. Published this week by Knopf, The Misfortune of Marion Palm presents us with a heroine come into her own, in a somewhat alarming way. Our excerpt is from the chapter “Women Who Embezzle.”
MARION PALM IS an expert on women who embezzle. She does not think of women as embezzlers. Embezzlers are men; for women, embezzlement is a practice.
Women who embezzle do not live lavishly. The reason for the practice has nothing to do with status. It has to do with justice and enforced reciprocity. Women who embezzle will save the money, pay some bills, and then buy a Jet Ski for their family. Women who embezzle will bid extraordinary amounts on rare Victorian dolls on eBay.
Women who embezzle are not apologetic, but they may cry when caught. When women who embezzle embezzle from churches, they fall to their knees and pray. They do not pray for forgiveness. They pray for safety and protection. Women who embezzle from offices do not cry but cross their arms and stiffly smile, as if to say, What did you expect? They’ve worked at the office for twenty years and are seen as a piece of furniture. A filing
cabinet. They may be eager to be caught. They may want credit for their greed and ingenuity.
Marion Palm has embezzled $180,000 over the years from her daughters’ private school in Brooklyn, where she works part-time in the development office. Her daughters’ quarterly tuition payments are paid by her husband’s family trust. She’s never seen his money and so it does not exist. It’s explained to be the interest from Great-Grandfather Henry Palm’s fortune. The money is now represented as a series of digits online, in unending transit through international wires.
She’s spent some of the money she embezzled on appliances, exercise equipment, and several family trips to Europe. Her husband, a writer of difficult fiction and terse prose poems, receives a monthly allowance from the trust and believes it is enough for a family of four because he does not know what things cost. He does not know how to worry about money, and Marion has never asked him to. He enjoys the Sub-Zero refrigerator, an environmentally friendly boiler, a state-of-the-art elliptical machine, and a new patio. He believes these are things all families deserve.
Marion Palm has embezzled $180,000, spent most of it on her family, but saved $40,000 in cash for herself. It was hidden in the basement of the brownstone. She collected it this morning after she read an email from her supervisor informing her that the school was about to be audited by the IRS. Her supervisor was panicking, because Marion has been, in essence, doing her supervisor’s job while the supervisor suffers a glacially slow mental breakdown. What should I do? the supervisor asked. The board keeps asking me questions about the books and I don’t know any of the answers. When are you getting here? As you well know, these stress situations trigger my fight-or-flight. Come to my office immediately. Did you inform me that you would be late? Marion deleted the email.
Marion has saved the knapsack for an occasion like this.
From the book The Misfortune of Marion Palm by Emily Culliton, copyright © 2017 by Emily Culliton. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.