A National Book Critics Circle Leonard Prize Finalist
Longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
Named a Best Book of the Year by Vogue, BuzzFeed, The Washington Post, Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, NPR, NYLON, Huffington Post, Kirkus Reviews, Barnes & Noble
Chosen for the Book of the Month Club, Nylon Book Club, and Belletrist Book Club
Named an Indie Next Pick and a Barnes and Noble Discover Pick
The story of two girls and the wild year that will cost one her life, and define the other’s for decades
Everything about fifteen-year-old Cat’s new town in rural Michigan is lonely and off-kilter until she meets her neighbor, the manic, beautiful, pill-popping Marlena. Cat is quickly drawn into Marlena’s orbit and as she catalogues a litany of firsts—first drink, first cigarette, first kiss, first pill—Marlena’s habits harden and calcify. Within the year, Marlena is dead, drowned in six inches of icy water in the woods nearby. Now, decades later, when a ghost from that pivotal year surfaces unexpectedly, Cat must try again to move on, even as the memory of Marlena calls her back.
Told in a haunting dialogue between past and present, Marlena is an unforgettable story of the friendships that shape us beyond reason and the ways it might be possible to pull oneself back from the brink.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Julie Buntin’s debut novel is a thrilling, searingly honest exploration of the once-in-a-lifetime intensity of teenage girls’ friendships. Neighbors in a small Midwestern town, Cat and Marlena forge a profound bond as they navigate an ecstatic, perilous landscape of drugs, boys, and hard-won freedoms. Marlena is an unerringly observed drama about youthful choices and their lifelong, reverberating consequences.
In her impressive debut novel, Buntin displays a remarkable control of tone and narrative arc. In a keenly observed study of teenage character, narrator Catherine, 15, is miserable in the ramshackle house her newly divorced mother has bought in the dismal town of Silver Lake in northern Michigan. When she meets Marlena, her glamorous 17-year-old next-door neighbor, Cat is smitten with the euphoria of having a best friend. Buntin is particularly sensitive to the misery of adolescent angst, and Cat's growing happiness in Marlena's friendship runs like an electric wire through the narrative. Marlena is dangerous, however: she runs with a bad crowd, and her father cooks meth. From the beginning, we know that Marlena is irresistible, reckless, and brave; she's a mother substitute for her forlorn younger brother musically talented, beautiful, and doomed to die young. It's only later that Cat understands that Marlena is the needy one in their relationship. Her bravado hides desperation; she fears she'll never get out of Silver Lake, that she has no future, and that "there were kids like us all over rural America." Almost 20 years later, living in New York with her husband and working at a good job, Cat is still damaged by losing Marlena. Crippled by "the pain at the utter core of me," she takes refuge in alcohol and memories. The novel is poignant and unforgettable, a sustained eulogy for Marlena's "glow... that lives in lost things, that sets apart the gone forever."
One of the best books I've read this year. Dark and beautiful, Marlena will leave you haunted.