Good women are all well and good in real life. I myself aspire to be a good woman in real life. But good women can be boring as hell in fiction, whereas bad women are fascinating. Case in point: the heroines of two new novels out this September, Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller, and The Misfortune of Marion Palm, by Emily Culliton.
I admire Sarah Miller for daring to imagine the interior life of hardworking, goodhearted Caroline Wilder, pioneer mother and wife. Miller’s Caroline remains resourceful and maternal, beautiful and feminine. And her relationship with Pa? Perhaps difficult at moments, but generally just about perfect. “With Charles she could… settle fully into herself – and into him. To lie fitted side by side, bolstering one another without a word… Even after ten years of wedlock, Charles treated her touch, her very presence, as something he must earn.” Lovely! But this doesn’t make me believe in Charles – or Caroline – as anything other than deeply fictional creations.
What Sarah Miller does brilliantly? Transport you into the physical world of the novel. It is February of 1870 when the Ingalls load up their covered wagon, leaving the Big Woods of Wisconsin for Indian Territory in Kansas. I felt the bitter cold of the journey, suffered the frustration of roadside meal preparation, and jostled among their belongings in the wagon. I have never felt so grateful for my kitchen and running water, not to mention my car. I felt a great deal of affection and admiration for Caroline, and appreciated the time in her company – but I can’t say that anything in her character aroused my curiosity.
Marion Palm, on the other hand? From the opening moments of Emily Culliton’s novel, set in modern-day Brooklyn, Marion both intrigued and chilled me. You learn, on the first page, that Marion has embezzled from her children’s school and – in danger of being found out – has disappeared with the cash, abandoning her husband and two daughters. “Marion Palm is on the lam,” the novel begins, and it proceeds in a similar manner – clipped, short, efficient. Most chapters are no longer than 3 pages. Will Marion return to her children and husband? Will a hired gun find her? What will happen to her once she begins the next round of embezzlement, this time from more dangerous foes?
Also: what will become of her ineffectual writer husband, Nathan, and her confused daughters, Ginny (13) and Jane (8)? They cope with her disappearance in predictable and unpredictable ways, leaving you wondering – and fearing – who’ll jump the rails next.
I loved this book, every moment of it, and dreaded reading it. Why, Marion, why? Who have you been in the process of becoming your whole life, leading to this strange and terrible flowering? Caroline wouldn’t know what to make of you.
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First published: nFocus, September 2017.