Who can recognize the ending as it’s happening? What we live, it seems to me, is pretty much always a surprise.
Marlena is a book about so much more than a girl, or even both the girls who inhabit it—insightful, self-effacing narrator Cat and her ethereal, almost mythological Marlena—it is about the boundaries which they crave to expand beyond and end up ultimately caging themselves into.
These boundaries begin with place and circumstance: the two young girls are poor, in the middle of nowhere, and coming to the point in their mid-to-late teen years where they need guidance.
Marlena has a father who is deeply ensconced in the drug trade and a younger brother she has to look after. She has a habit and a creepy older dealer she can’t kick.
Cat’s mom is newly single and juggling jobs and keeping food on the table and Cat finds it easy to slip out of her 3.8 GPA and into a freer lifestyle, following Marlena and her friends around, getting drunk and high, and skipping school.
To her, it seems like she is experiencing life for the first time and there are almost no consequences. Even as she tells the story from a point in her 30s, far away in New York City, where she still hasn’t really accepted her alcoholism, Cat doesn’t seem resigned to or embarrassed by the events as they happened in the past.
The current-day Cat seems worn down—like she is envious of the potential the girl she used to be had, how now she doesn’t see it in herself. But she never did see it in herself—what is so different now? What are we all wasting time on, right?
It’s almost as though she wishes she could freeze that moment in time, and live there—she would almost do it. Especially those months before.
Even though they weren't perfect and she wasn't exactly happy, I got the sense that she really felt she lived more in those months than at any other time in her life.
When it seemed like nothing could go wrong and everything teetered on the brink but they only had one way to go and they would get out of that town and start over.
Doesn’t everyone have a moment like that? But would it really change anything?
I was prettier in reflection. The fragmentary me that lived in shop windows, puddles, the hood of a car passing by, the dark spot in Marlena’s eye—that girl was sheer potential.
Buntin's prose has moments of great insight, especially for teenage girls. It felt very real and caught in the moment. High school was all about changing something fundamental or physical about yourself in order to find out who you really were, to uncover the real you.
I think we can all look back on our high school years and sense a kinship in feeling to this book in some way. Maybe you were in with the drama kids or the band geek, but everyone had their thing that they identified with that also put them on the outside.
And the root of the story is this unknowable, untouchable, godlike Marlena. But, of course, she is none of that.
She wasn’t the most popular or even very well-liked at school. She wasn’t the smartest. She was a drug addict, she lived in a dirty house, hung out with dangerous people, made poor choices for herself and led others to those choices too.
She was just a kid, trying to survive and hoping to get out someday.
This book magnificently portrays all the sides of Marlena, putting her on a pedestal as Cat saw her and also putting her in her place as just another human making some bad decisions.
She is intricate and real, nuanced and confusing, but in the end, she is still a character we don’t get to hear from. This is Cat’s story and I wonder if, had she been given the chance, Marlena would tell it any differently.
Get your copy of Marlena
Find out more about the author, Julie Buntin
Find out more about the publisher, Henry Holt & Co (Macmillan)
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Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.