Marlena is Julie Buntin’s debut novel about two teenage girls growing up on the edges of a forest in rural Michigan. It’s the raw coming-of-age story of Cat, a girl from the suburbs of Detroit and her growth as a character when she’s unwillingly thrown into a little nothing of a town where she meets Marlena, her “manic, beautiful, pill-popping” neighbor. Throughout the novel Cat conforms herself to Marlena, no longer wanting to be “Catherine," the private school girl who coughs at the smell of cigarette smoke, but Cat. Marlena’s friend. Marlena is entertaining, Cat is interesting, this is very much a character driven story, and I really enjoyed every moment of it.
The novel is told through a distanced and mature retelling of Cat’s young teen years with chapters flipping from her life in Silver Lake and her current adult life in New York. Buntin artfully uses anchoring points throughout the “younger” chapters of the novel that keeps reminding the reader that this is a memory. I’ll admit that the first couple times that happened I was a bit thrown off. A voice would suddenly break into the telling that didn’t match the already established voice of fifteen-year-old Cat but once I realized who that voice was and what it was doing for the story, it really strengthened the moment.
This is Cat’s story, from the first time she sets foot in Silver Lake to her being an adult with a career in New York, but she’s oftentimes overshadowed by Marlena. Marlena is a wild child from the very first time the reader sees her in the passenger seat of her boyfriend’s pickup. Her personality is bright and eccentric yet tainted with a darkness that Cat couldn’t really grasp until she was older. Cat was just along for the ride, moulded by Marlena’s unique allure. It would have been easy for Cat to become a background character; she's quiet and often times unsure of herself, but Buntin kept her at the forefront of the story. The voice of the character kept her interesting even if, seemingly at first, the character herself wasn’t. The first person narrator was a perfect choice and Buntin did a great job with it.
This is a story of more than just sex, drugs, and lost childhood. It’s about friendship, family, and self-discovery. It’s about loss and growth and everything in between. I think this is a story worth listening to and the artful and unique telling kept me reading even when I knew that I should go to bed.
Reviewed by Cali Luisa Lemus
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Publication Year: 2017
Number of Pages: 274