Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Runaway Mom of Brooklyn Heights an Unlikable Person Upends Her Family

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Runaway Mom of Brooklyn Heights an Unlikable Person Upends Her Family

Article excerpt

In "The Misfortune of Marion Palm," novelist Emily Culliton asks a big question: What makes readers like characters? Is it their "likability"?

Marion Palm embezzled $180,000 from her children's private school in Brooklyn Heights, then left her daughters and husband behind as she ran away to protect herself. About halfway through the book, we discover that she does not feel guilt about any of it. She is not a likable person. Yet, as the walls (and detectives and school administrators) close in, I found myself hoping that she was able to find a way to slip between their fingers.

While reading, I went from being intrigued by Marion, to being disgusted by her actions and saddened by her motivations, to wondering what makes readers like certain characters. Why do we root for Marion to successfully evade justice? There is a big difference between a likable person and a likable character.

The novel traces the story of Marion's disappearance and absence in the points of view of Marion, her husband, each of her daughters (ages 8 and 13), and some other characters, including the police detective and Marion's office mate. Her poet husband, Nathan, revives an old affair and, as time passes and he accepts that Marion is not coming back (or just delves to unimaginable depths of denial), reinvents himself as a stay-at-home dad with a homemaking blog.

While both of Marion's daughters retreat inward, the older girl begins hanging around the wrong crowd and gets detention day after day. The younger daughter becomes transfixed with a nonverbal teenager who disappeared the same week as her mother and how, if finding her mother is not within her control, she can "find" this boy. In her imagination, he becomes a supportive stand-in for Marion.

For Marion herself, life on the lam is kind of an out-of-body experience. …

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