Julie Buntin‘s debut novel, Marlena, examines the nuance and power of young female friendship, the lasting effects of guilt, and the rampant drug abuse present in rural areas of the United States. It’s quite a lot to tackle in less than 300 pages, but Buntin isn’t any other author; every line is crafted to a sharp point that digs deep into the aspects of adolescence that haunt us long into adulthood. I’m not sure that many authors would have been up to the task, but Buntin’s unsentimental prose and pitch-perfect characterization comprise an affecting novel that—as many great books do—encourages rereading.
It’s hard to overstate how influential adolescent friendships can be on an individual’s development, especially a young woman. Countless authors, from Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen, to Elena Ferrante and Margaret Atwood, have explored that nearly unbreakable bond between women who are drawn to each other for reasons that aren’t entirely understood. But it is that particular strength of adolescent attachment that Buntin navigates with astounding acuity.
The narrative shifts back and forth between Cat as a 15-year-old who is becoming increasingly enmeshed in the tantalizing web Marlena weaves, and Cat as an adult, pondering how her brief time with Marlena has changed her life irrevocably. Young Cat has the observer’s intelligence of an avid reader. She looks at the world with a level of maturity beyond her age, and Marlena’s presence makes her even more aware of the dark lining that wraps around beautiful things—like Michigan, like Marlena.
But Cat’s perspicacity isn’t enough to right Marlena’s increasing dependence on prescription pills, and her eventual (inevitable) heroin use. Marlena’s ill-fated tale of addiction, whether intentionally or unintentionally, functions as a microcosm in its depiction of a larger phenomenon. It seems now that nearly everyone knows someone who has made the leap from prescription drugs to heroin. It’s cheaper and makes for a faster high. Pharmaceutical companies—the world’s most powerful kingpins—make a killing (literally) peddling pills to people in the country’s poorest communities.
And yet, Marlena believes she is doing the right thing in avoiding meth—the substance that has sunk its claws into everyone around her. Her father and boyfriend cook it, and it caused her mother to leave. To Marlena, pills are what doctors prescribe to people anyway. No harm in that, right?
As an adult, Cat seizes the moments in hindsight when she could have done something to save Marlena, but she was too enraptured with her, too dependent on the feeling of being part of a whole. Their friendship is the propulsive force that moves her, sharpening her senses to take in a world that can only exist in their rural section of Michigan—a dead end town that somehow contains multitudes.
When Marlena’s little brother Sal calls Cat to tell her he’s in New York and wants to talk about everything that happened in the past, she is forced to take stock of just how much Marlena’s brief presence in her life has changed who she’s become—someone who often drinks to excess, who has a strained relationship with her father and brother, who feels an innate empathy for outsiders and addicts.
In some ways, the “Peter Pan” effect has taken hold of fragments of Cat’s memories of Marlena, which is generally the natural way of things; Cat grows older, Marlena will always be a teenager. Building that dynamic into a narrative successfully without making Marlena seem like a tragic hero is a difficult task, one that Buntin handles brilliantly.
Yes, Marlena possesses a disarming, feral beauty; consciously understated intelligence; and a beautiful singing voice. But Cat also remembers Marlena’s mercurial nature, her occasional condescension, her secretiveness, and her unwashed hair.
Buntin begins the novel with a scene that becomes even more poignant once the reader finishes the book. It’s Marlena speeding dangerously towards the lake in their town, not showing any signs of stopping. Cat is screaming, afraid. But Marlena keeps driving, foot pressed down on the pedal, deep in one of her drug-induced manias. And Cat hates her in that moment.
Even though those negative feelings never last, they become a dark lining on all their happiest moments—the moments Adult Cat looks on with regret for not having done something more for Marlena.
In the end, Buntin has strung together a novel that is equal parts a love story, a tragedy, and an ode to the harsh beauty and danger of Michigan. But Marlena is primarily about guilt; how to deal with it; where to lay blame; how to make peace with the past. I’m not sure the answers are clear-cut, but the questions themselves are enough to jolt the reader into awareness.