The story of two girls and the wild year that will cost one her life and define the other’s for decades.
Everything about fifteen-year-old Cat’s new town in rural Michigan is lonely and off-kilter until she meets her neighbour, the magic, beautiful, pill-popping Marlena. Cat is quickly drawn into Marlena’s orbit, and as she catalogues a litany of firsts – first drink, first cigarette, first kiss, first pill – Marlena’s habits harden and calcify. Within a year, Marlena is dead, drowned in six inches of icy water in the woods nearby. Now, decades later, when a ghost from that pivotal year surfaces unexpectedly, Cat must try again to move on, even as the memory of Marlena calls her back.
Told in a haunting dialogue between the past and the present, Marlena is an unforgettable story of the friendships that shape us beyond reason and the ways it might be possible to bring oneself back from the brink.
Marlena by Julie Buntin is a poetically written coming of age set against a backdrop of rural poverty, drug abuse and the magical powers of female friendship.
Oof. This is not an easy read. To read Marlena is to live a few days with the particular sadness of getting to know a character with the knowledge that at some point in the book, they are going to die. Our willingness to inflict emotional trauma on ourselves is one of the odd peculiarities that comes with being a total story fangirl.
It’s rare that I talk about world building outside of the context of fantasy, but in Marlena, Julie Buntin has created one that is as immersive as it is oppressive. The bleakness of the landscape, occupied by, as so many spaces are, only the very rich and the very poor, seems to soak up the potential of its inhabitants. Though Marlena is undoubtedly a book of feelings – of love, rejection, shame and grief – it is also one of the all-encompassing boredom that comes with being a teenager in a shitty town in the middle of nowhere.
Unlike a lot of the stories I read written from the perspectives of teenagers, our protagonist, Cat, is telling the story as an adult woman looking back on the year that formed so much of who she became as an adult. This creates an awareness of adolescence that is necessarily absent from YA (because when you’re a teen literally the last thing you’re interested in is analysis of being a teen from people who no longer are one. Then you turn 22 and start realising you need to figure out your shit and then it’s all you want to read. Trust me on that.). Marlena is an exploration of adolescence from adulthood in which Buntin reflects with painful emotional honesty on sex, obsessive friendship, naivety and body image to the point you can’t help but feel, as Stephanie Danler writes, “sick to my stomach, with equal parts fear and nostalgia – stunned that any of us made it out of our adolescence alive.”
Cat and Marlena’s friendship makes for a compelling and tragic read. They in fall in love through each fulfilling for the other a need they had never vocalised: for Cat, the need to be connected to somebody, to feel seen in order to feel alive (who hasn’t been there?) and for Marlena, to be loved innocently for the first and probably only time in her short, difficult life. Buntin skilfully maintains an insurmountable distance between the two girls using the comparative innocence that likely drew Marlena to Cat in the first place. The evil lurking in Marlena’s life is the meth addiction that has stolen so many people from her community, including her abusive father, whose addition controls his life. It also has her boyfriend, Ryder, who sells the drug, in its grip. This is a force that dominates Marlena’s life, and always has. It’ll lead to what seems at the end her inevitable death. Yet, when Cat first sees the improvised meth lab lurking in Ryder’s home, she has no idea what she’s looking at, she doesn’t see the fire that’s already burnt Marlena’s house to the ground.
Marlena is a beautiful and tragic book about sisterhood and grief. It is a story in equal parts sickening and compelling with a rawness concerning the darker aspects of girlhood that left me in pieces. Buntin has presented us with a difficult but thrilling debut that has left me excited – when I recover, anyway – for whatever she comes up with next.