MARLENA by Julie Buntin

From the Back Cover

Fifteen-year-old Cat’s new town in rural Michigan feels lonely and dismal until she meets her manic, beautiful, pill-popping next-door neighbor, Marlena.  Cat is drawn into Marlena’s orbit, and as Cat 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.  Decades later, Cat is confronted by a ghost from that pivotal year.  Told in a haunting dialogue between past and present, MARLENA is a story of an unforgettable friendship and the ways it might be possible to pull oneself back from the brink.

My Thoughts

Julie Buntin’s MARLENA was a nice surprise, far different from what I was expecting.  Unlike the bright coral of its cover, Buntin’s debut is a rather dark story, a heartbreaking commentary on drug addiction and the opioid epidemic illustrated by two teenage girls: inexperienced fifteen year-old Cat and her partner-in-crime, the illustrious Marlena, Cat’s seventeen year-old neighbor with a worrisome drug habit.

“Have you ever tried to demarcate the hours between the moment you thought you’d never fall asleep and the instant after opening your eyes, your bedroom flooded with the befuddling, sugary pink of dawn?  Between point A and point B you exist, you are alive, your breath slowing, your body temperature dropping, the shadows cast by your furniture elongating and shrinking as the moon revolves through the sky above your flimsy house, if that’s even where you really are.”

MARLENA is a nice read for those who find themselves drawn to young adult fiction, but it is correctly categorized as general/adult fiction.  Though the novel features an adolescent narrator, the writing style is mature, without all of the tropes and cliches that modern young adult fiction has come to rely on.  Cat’s voice instantly drew me in, much like THE GIRLS by Emma Cline, which also utilizes a teenage main character in a similar position, caught between her true self and an alluring cult.  Buntin truly captures the feeling of being a teenager and the endless desire to fit in.

“As the days went on, the person I desperately wanted to be and the person other people believed I was were moving slowly toward each other, and that was the source of my all-consuming happiness, a joy so complete that I walked around in a kind of blackout state, missing most of what was happening around me.”

MARLENA’s ending seemed bit anti-climatic; I felt Buntin leading up to something big, but then the novel just… ended.  However, beyond that incomplete-feel, I did truly enjoy MARLENA much more than I was expecting to and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone looking for a gripping read.

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