'Marlena' is a vivid portrait of a friendship between two teen girls in a troubled community that captures the heartaches of adolescence.
Sometimes it seems as though every girl had an impossibly beautiful best friend in high school. Maybe that’s just a function of the almost prescribed insecurity young women face as teens. Our tummies are too soft, our knees too knobbly, our hair too flat and our skin congested. Someone else is always more perfect, and that someone else can become an fixation.
Basically, teenagers are shallow. The narrator of Marlena, a woman named Cat, realizes that, looking back. She’s telling the story of her high school best friend from the vantage point of a grown-up, someone who’s graduated, gotten out and made a new life. She’s aware that her own teenage self cared about the wrong things. Marlena, she recalls, “was alarmingly pretty ― sly, feline face, all cheekbone and blink ― and if I am honest, that was the first reason I wanted to become friends.” She catalogues her own physical flaws, then adds, “Still, I believed that at any second I might become beautiful. I was crazy about girls who already were.”
Marlena’s beauty, it turns out, also serves as misdirection; Cat never really notices how much trouble her buddy is in ― only how effortless, how glamorous, how sharply cheekboned she is.
Cat has just moved to a dying town in Michigan with her mother, recently divorced, and her older brother, Jimmy, when she meets Marlena. The newly depleted family, struggling financially without Cat’s father, moved to find a cheaper life, but she is resentful about leaving her prep school and friends. In Silver Lake, Cat discovers, they have neighbors ― most notably Marlena, who is two years older than Cat, and Sal, Marlena’s little brother. Their mother is gone and their father more of a burden than a parent, so Marlena cares for him. Compared to Cat’s naïveté, Marlena appears all grown up. She wears T-shirts with the necks cut out. She has a cute boyfriend. She gets Cat to cut class and smoke pot and drink with her all day.
For the awkward, nerdy girl Cat sees herself as being, a best friendship with an older girl like Marlena ― sharp, sarcastic, creative and gorgeous ― offers almost inconceivable excitement. Immediately, she remembers, there were signs that something wasn’t right, signs everywhere that she almost couldn’t have missed, except that she did. Marlena acts erratic, drinks too much, constantly skips school; her deadbeat father spends most of his time in a janky shed nearby, which Cat doesn’t realize at the time is a meth lab.
It’s not a spoiler to say that Marlena has died by the end of the novel. The novel reveals that almost immediately. But working up to how, or at least why, she wound up lying dead in a few inches of icy slush in the woods, is a more harrowing journey. She’s mixed up in an exploitative relationship with an older man. Sal is taken away from the family home after a visit from CPS, and Marlena struggles to win custody of him. She seems to physically deteriorate. Cat sees her as larger than life through all of this, untouchable; all she really sees in Marlena is someone she wants to be. As she goes over and over her indelible memories of the months she spent attached to her friend’s hip, she tries to pin down the moments when all was lost. When did her drug habits get too extreme? When did she lose hope of making it out?
Marlena is a confessional work, a narrator’s exhausted, fruitless self-excoriation. Like many women looking back on her teen years, Cat recalls not appreciating her mother enough, not noticing the shit going on in her friends’ lives, not looking outside herself.
Beyond the exhilarating and terrifying evolution of the girls’ friendship, Buntin excels at capturing the sensations of girlhood. Cat tries booze, and drugs. She runs through the woods barefoot and comes back with feet embedded with grit. She feels vague sexual stirrings that she can’t cope with, though she tries. She masturbates unsuccessfully in bed, remembering later how
At every turn, Buntin’s prose flows with the easy, confident rhythms of an accomplished writer, and though there’s really no mystery in the narrative, it reads nearly as compulsively as a thriller. As authors of what’s been morbidly dubbed “sick lit” know, the shocking, inexplicable juxtaposition of youth’s limitless potential and a central figure’s looming death imbues every moment with tension.
The tale of two friends, one who succeeds and one who fails, isn’t new ― it’s the entire focus of Elena Ferrante’s wildly popular Neapolitan books. But it remains fascinating nonetheless, especially in Buntin’s capable hands. It’s an inescapable fact that the tightest of bonds can’t paper over gulfs that open up between people as time passes; circumstances change, and life tears at our friendships. In the case of Marlena, the breach is more abrupt, more total. Cat’s realization that there are other forces in the world more powerful than her oaths of friendship is a coming-of-age, but also emotionally stunting. The trauma keeps her suspended in the past, hoping one day to understand it.
The Bottom Line:
Marlena’s vivid portrait of a friendship between two teenage girls in a troubled community ― one who made out, and one who didn’t ― viscerally captures the sensations and heartaches of adolescence.
What other reviewers think:
PW: “In her impressive debut novel, Buntin displays a remarkable control of tone and narrative arc.”
Kirkus: “Sensitive and smart and arrestingly beautiful, debut novelist Buntin’s tale of the friendship between two girls in the woods of Northern Michigan makes coming-of-age stories feel both urgent and new.”
Who wrote it?
Marlena is Julie Buntin’s debut novel. She is the director of writing programs at Catapult, and she has been published in The Atlantic, Cosmopolitan, Slate, and more.
Who will read it?
Readers who love realistic novels about female friendship, such as fans of the Neapolitan novels.
“Tell me what you can’t forget, and I’ll tell you who you are. I switch off my apartment light and she comes with the dark. The train’s eye widens in the tunnel and there she is on the tracks, blond hair swinging. One of our old songs starts playing and I lose myself right in the middle of the cereal aisle. Sometimes, late at night, when I’m fumbling with the key outside my apartment door, my eyes meet my reflection in the hallway mirror and I see her, waiting.”
“So, very quickly, as you can see, in no more than a matter of weeks, she was my best friend. I was the first person, she told me, whose brain moved as quickly as hers, who got the weird things she said, her jokes, her vile, made-up swears, and could sharpen them with my own. A best friend is a magic thing, like finding a stump full of water that will make you live forever, or wandering into a field overrun by unicorns, or standing in a wardrobe one minute and a snowy forest the next.”
MarlenaBy Julie BuntinHenry Holt, $26.00Published April 4, 2017
The Bottom Line is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.
- A Story Of Friendship And Heartbreak That Definitely Passes The Bechdel Test
- Author Mary Gaitskill On Rape Culture And Her New Essay Collection
- How A Teen Girl's School Rape Case Became A Racist Witch Hunt
- Unless The Government Acts Soon, Fake News Will Produce Deep Information Inequality
- 'Handmaid's Tale' Waitlists Surge In Libraries Across America
- U.S. border agents under microscope after Canadians denied entry
- 'This is wild': Baroness von Sketch Show takes top honour at Screen Awards
- Shop Turns Books By Men Backward To Put Women Authors At The Forefront
- This Is A Story About 'This Is Sparta!'
- Syria's Children Are Mentally And Emotionally Shattered From Years Of War
- New York Looks To Teens In Effort To Prevent Domestic Violence
- Margaret Atwood’s Advice For Young Feminists: ‘Be Informed, Be Aware’
You might also like
- I’m Taking A Break From Social Activism And OMG I Need Like Everyone I Know To Read About This
- My Ex Became A Totally Different Person After Our Divorce
- The Public Should Pay Only For Public Schools, Not Religious Schools
- For Public Schools, It's Been '1984' For Quite A While
- 5 'Fate Of The Furious' Moments So Unnecessary, They're Necessary
- The Androgynous 'Third Gender' Of 17th-Century Japan
- Trump's Pick To Lead The Army Believes Being Transgender Is A Disease
- Senate Confirms Neil Gorsuch To Supreme Court After Historic Blockade Of Obama's Nominee
- Jeff Sessions Prepares DOJ For Crackdown On Unauthorized Border-Crossers
- Family Immigrant Detention Centers Struggle To Get Child Care Licenses
- Trump Administration Won't Routinely Separate Families At The Border After All
- New Sheriff Closes Joe Arpaio’s Infamous ‘Tent City’ Jail
- Powerful South Carolina political consultant implicated in indictments of a veteran state senator
- Will Donald Trump get a second Supreme Court nomination?
- "Hazing" rituals await Supreme Court's "junior justice" Neil Gorsuch
- The hunt is on for Planet Nine. Here's how to join it
- Trump approves controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline
- Trump praises 'Fox & Friends,' renews old feuds in early morning tweets
- Rex Tillerson finally answers question from NBC News' Andrea Mitchell
- First Read's Morning Clips: The Latest in the Russia Investigation
- Spicer: 'I've let the president down'
- Russian President Vladimir Putin met with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday
- OMB Diriector Mick Mulvaney: Washington's 'a lot more broken' than Trump thought
- Trump attacks conservatives over failure of health care bill
- A very consequential week didn't go well for President Trump
- Health Care Showdown: Republicans look to go big or go home
- No deal on health care bill after conservatives meet with Trump
- CA gov on those supporting health bill: 'Their name is going to be mud'
- Give it to me straight, doc: Is Obamacare dying?
- First Read's Morning Clips: Waiting for CBO
- 14 People Share What's It's Really Like to Have An Ex Who Is Now Their In-Law
- The Internet Is Freaking Out About The Way This Chef Cuts Pizza
- Calendar: Highlights from around town
- Tribute at Alex Theatre to honor the Band
- The Radical Power Of Lana Del Rey's Smile
- Inside One Female Photographer's Mission To Normalize The Nude Male Body
- New 'Serial' Podcast, 'S-Town,' Just Debuted All Its Episodes At Once
- 'Books Not Bombs' Initiative Promotes Education For Syrian Scholars
- How One Grandma's Modest Closet Found Its Way Into The Met
- In 1981, Margaret Atwood Made A Stirring Case For Investing In Culture
- White Artist's Painting Of Emmett Till Sparks Protest, Controversy And A Viral Hoax
- Despite Death Threats, Nazi-Themed Trump Billboard Artist Plans More
- Relive Your College Years With This Thoughtful, Hilarious Novel
- Some Theories On Trump's Bizarre Misuse Of Quotation Marks
- Gorgeous Portraits Capture Sisterhood Among Muslim American Teenagers
- Hundreds Of Stuffed Animals At The Jewish Museum Pay Unlikely Tribute To Immigrants
- Here's How You Can Help Fight Street Harassment With Public Art
- Artist Paints Interracial Couples Just Being, Together
- Jane Austen Has Become An Alt-Right Icon, Somehow
- Photographer Chronicles The Glamorous Hairstyles Of West Africa's Beauty Salons
- 23 Recent Books By Women You Should Read ASAP
- Arts Advocates Denounce Proposed Elimination Of The NEA And NEH