Marlena by Julie Buntin

Feels like: reflecting on the female friendships that have shaped you while reading your “On This Day” feed on Facebook.

Sounds like: “Glass” by Daughter


“I made it out, just like I wanted, and not once have I stopped looking back.” 


Marlena is one of the best books I’ve read in 2017.

I’ve read so many reviews lately that are framed with the declaration “I couldn’t put this book down!” I’m always skeptical of that. I remember reading books growing up that would completely consume me, rob me of the will to participate in a life outside the pages. I would cry when it was over, not over a cataclysmic ending in the plot, but for the emptiness that comes after closing a world. I attribute that feeling mostly to adolescence; those prepubescent hormones driving over-dramatic responses to practical things; the ability to be entirely embedded into something without other responsibilities getting in the way, like work or personal relationships. All you have is time to be consumed by something immense, and books are so immense.

So when friends in their twenties, thirties, forties tell me they couldn’t put a book down, it’s all hyperbole to me. Until Marlena reminded me that the immensity of good literature is intoxicating, transportive, and truly does stick to your hands like you’ve got fly paper on your fingers. I’d forgotten what it was like to read a book voraciously. I took this book with me everywhere. I read it in the morning with cereal, in the afternoon during my lunch break, and immediately after I kicked off my shoes and started dinner. I walked around with the book in my hands. I finished it so rapidly that turning the last page was like I’d finished a seminar on another planet, and descended back to earth with a reverberating thud.

Maybe because this book felt so deeply personal. Maybe because this book is written so fluidly, like a conversation between intimate friends. Maybe because it’s just that good. I couldn’t put it down.

Marlena follows the lives of two girls: Cat, the narrator, and the titular title character, Marlena. At fifteen, Cat moves to a rural town in Michigan with her older brother Jimmy and recently divorced mother. Next door lives the seventeen year old Marlena, a wild symbol of reckless youth and Cat’s immortal best friend for the next eight months, until Marlena is found drowned in a puddle in the dimming winter, a presumed overdose on a cornucopia of drugs. The adult Cat, a flashback narrator reflecting on the vitality and voracity of her friendship with Marlena and that year she spent in Michigan, holds onto the survivor’s guilt of escaping the prescription pill epidemic and the economic perils of rural America.

Suffice it to say, I believe every female can relate to the friendship formed between Cat and Marlena. There is something special about girlhood, sometime rife with possibilities, fleeting and amorphous and concrete and forever, all at the same time. This book captures it just as well if not better than The Girls by Emma Cline. Certainly fans of that book will love Marlena, and I’m looking forward to anything else Julie Buntin writes going forward. For a first book by this author, it’s a studied, literary win.

Memorable quotes:

“Everyone has a secret life. But when you’re a girl with a best friend, you think your secret is something you can share.”

“Like sex and cooking and watching bad television, like eating, like existing in the world after twilight, talking has become difficult for me without a drink.”

“Now it strikes me as a profoundly American thing–an epidemic that started as an abuse of the cure, a disease we made ourselves. But what did I know about America? Back then I’d been infected with a chronic political apathy, a symptom, maybe, of being part of a family that was always barely scraping by, conditioned to be wary of the system.”

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