Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Book Review: "Marlena" by Julie Buntin

If you're a fan of The Wallflowers' music, maybe you'll find yourself singing this song while reading Julie Buntin's Marlena: (Not because of any particular plot point or because the lyrics are symbolic, just because there is a Marlena in the book and one, two, three Marlenas in the song. I'm deep like that.)

"Sometimes I feel like she is my invention. Like the more I say, the further from the truth of her I get. I'm trying to hold palmfuls of sand but I squeeze harder, I tighten my fist, and the quicker it all escapes."

Fifteen-year-old Cat's life is turned upside down when her mother decides the best way to recover from her divorce and regain some financial momentum is to move Cat and her older brother Jimmy from their home in Pontiac, Michigan to the rural town she grew up in, Silver Lake. Cat has to leave her private school, her best friend, and the sense of security she had, plus she'll be moving away from her father, and although he hasn't been attentive since moving in with his much younger girlfriend, she knows she'll miss him.

No one is bargaining for the somewhat rundown house they move into, nor do they expect to be amidst trailer homes and other decrepit homes, where it appears less-than-upstanding activities are taking place. But the bright spot for Cat is meeting Marlena, her next door neighbor. Marlena is two years older, worldly where Cat has been sheltered, bold and brazen where Cat is shy, and when they meet, she is already in the throes of addiction to pills of all kinds, but she generally manages to keep her life together on a day-to-day basis.

Before long, Cat and Marlena are mostly inseparable, although she must navigate Marlena's mood swings and the fear of her unstable father. But with Marlena, Cat also gets to experience many firsts—first kiss, first drink, first cigarette, first time skipping school—and feels like she finally is part of something, even if at times it leaves her unsteady and uncertain. But despite the emotional roller coaster of their relationship, and Cat's recognition that Marlena's behavior is, ultimately, dangerous, she is still unprepared for Marlena's death less than a year later.

This book is told from two perspectives—Cat unfolding the story of her relationship with Marlena and all that occurred during that tumultuous time in Silver Lake, and Cat as an adult, decades later, when the appearance of a ghost from her past causes her to revisit the emotions and the regrets, not to mention the addictions she still lives with all those years later. For the first time, she might have to acknowledge just how profound an effect Marlena had on her life, and in some ways, still does.

"The truth is both a vast wilderness and the tiniest space you can imagine. It's between me and her, what I saw and what she saw and how I see it now and how she has no now. Divide it further—between what I mean and what I say, who I am and who I appear to be, who she said she was and acted like she was and also, of course, who she really was, in all her glorious complexity, all her unknowable Marlena-ness, all her secrets."

There's nothing as intense as a friendship formed in adolescence, particularly amidst the tumultuous teenage years. Marlena is a gripping, emotional account of just how much our lives are affected by those we're closest to when we're younger, and the blessings and the scars of those relationships live on with us well into adulthood.

This is a story of young woman trying to hold her own in a relationship that both made her feel special and inadequate, and a woman years later whose life is still shaped by those days, the decisions she made and those she regrets. Buntin does a terrific job capturing the power dynamics of adolescent friendships, and the after-effects felt long afterward. She's a great storyteller, and this book is packed with emotion, imagery, and lots of instances in which you want to smack the characters for not confronting the issues they see in front of them.

Marlena isn't a perfect book; at times the pacing moved a little slower than I would have liked, and at times Cat alludes to things that happen in the future but I would have liked to understand what led up to some of those instances rather than just be told what happened. But Buntin's use of language and emotion transcends the book's flaws, and definitely keeps you thinking about these characters, even if you've seen them before.

NetGalley and Henry Holt & Company provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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