Reading Group Center

The Misfortune of Marion Palm

By Emily Culliton

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s conversation about The Misfortune of Marion Palm, the highly entertaining and compulsively readable debut novel from Emily Culliton.

1. Why does Marion prefer to think of herself as a “woman who embezzles,” rather than as an embezzler? What motivates Marion to embezzle? How does she justify her behavior? Would you characterize Marion’s embezzlement as a feminist act? Why or why not? To what extent does Marion relate to the other women embezzlers whom she reads about online? How are their experiences similar to or different from her own?

2. Discuss the theme of marital discord in The Misfortune of Marion Palm. How would you characterize Marion and Nathan’s courtship? When did the rift between them first begin to form? As you answer this question, consider their different backgrounds, their finances, their distribution of labor, and their approaches to parenthood.

3. Examine Marion’s adolescence and early adulthood. How would you describe her relationship with her mother? In what ways might this relationship have influenced her own feelings about motherhood? How would you characterize Marion’s experience at the cafe in SoHo where she worked in her early twenties? To what extent was this first job a formative experience?

4. Explore Ginny’s response to her mother’s departure. What frustrates her the most about how the adults around her respond to her mother’s disappearance? What is she hoping to get out of new friendships with older students? Why do you think Ginny “falls in love” with various boys over the course of the novel? In what ways are these responses a reflection of her age?  

5. Discuss Jane’s fascination with the missing boy. Why do you think she starts to pretend they are spending time together? How does she respond to the news of his death? How might her fascination with his disappearance be connected to her confusion about her mother’s disappearance?

6. Examine the novel’s depiction of the different neighborhoods in Brooklyn. What does Carroll Gardens represent to Marion? What does Brighton Beach represent to her? Why does she decide to remain in Brooklyn after leaving her family, even though she knows she might be discovered? As you answer this question, consider how James Agee’s epigraph relates to the novel.

7. How would you characterize the administration and board of trustees at the school? Why do the members of the board remain nameless? To what extent does this characterization serve to satirize elite private schools—and, more generally, bureaucracy?

8. Explore the motif of secrecy in the novel. What kinds of secrets are depicted in the novel? Who keeps them? What are the consequences of the various characters’ secrets? Is secrecy ever defensible? Why or why not? 

9. Examine the dynamic between Marion and Sveyta. Why does Marion accept the cleaning job that Sveyta offers her, despite the paltry pay? What are Marion’s hopes for her relationship with Sveyta? Why is she so fixated on going to the ballet with her?

10. Explore how Nathan adapts to life without Marion. How does his wife’s departure affect his approach to fatherhood? Why does he avoid leaving the house? Why do you think he feels more fulfilled blogging about his life than he did writing poetry?

11. Consider Nathan and Denise’s affair. What does Nathan hope to get out of the affair? What does Denise hope to get? Why does Denise eventually decide to cut if off? How does Nathan respond to their “breakup”?

12. Discuss the theme of parenthood as it is depicted in the novel. What does it mean to be a good parent? A bad parent? What obstacles do the parents in the novel face as they try to be good parents? At what point does the dichotomy between “good” and “bad” begin to break down? When answering this question, consider Nathan and Marion, Anna and Tom, the mother of the missing boy, and the wealthy Russian couple.

13. Explore the character of the detective. What is his personal life like? Why do you believe he remains unnamed? What motivates him to continue looking for Marion? When he finally speaks to her, why does he decide to inform Nathan that Marion is safe, without disclosing her whereabouts? 

14. Discuss the conclusion of the novel. Is this the ending you were expecting? Do you believe that Marion will encounter more misfortune in Russia? Was Marion ever truly misfortunate? Why or why not?