Marlena by Julie Buntin
US pub date: April 4, 2017
Hmm. I really wanted to love this, but there was something about it that made it difficult for me to really sink my teeth in. I think part of it was just that this story is so familiar. Plain Jane narrator becomes enamored with a mysterious, glamorous, troubled girl. The Girls (Emma Cline). The Strays (Emily Bitto). Even stuff like The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins), to an extent. I wanted so much for Marlena to be different, or if not different, at least special, because in theory I have no problem with the bare bones of this story: I like the exploration of female friendships, and I like female coming of age stories. I just didn’t get anything out of this one. I wanted to, but I didn’t.
This is the story of two girls, Cat and the titular Marlena, who are friends for less than a year in high school, after Cat’s family relocates to Marlena’s town. By the end of that year, Marlena is dead, and she’s made an indelible mark on Cat which continues to define her throughout adulthood, as she struggles with an alcoholism that she picked up in her adolescence. This book promises heartbreak and emotional devastation, but doesn’t deliver. I’m left feeling rather apathetic about these characters, and for such a character-driven novel, that’s probably not the best impression to be left with.
For such a short book, there are too many pages of nothing happening. Cat skips school, Cat smokes a cigarette. Marlena pops a pill. Cat’s mom drinks wine before bed. Intriguing characters lurk in the background: Marlena’s father, Marlena’s drug dealer. But every time they appear to get close enough to touch, the narrative is derailed, usually by Cat smoking another cigarette or Marlena popping another pill. This story really goes nowhere; which, again, fine, I do enjoy character studies – but these characters’ entire personalities are captured almost too sufficiently in the first five pages. Cat the reserved, thoughtful one who’s so desperate to fit in she’s willing to compromise parts of herself to do so, and Marlena the wild and reckless one that everyone’s drawn to, even when she treats others terribly. Julie Buntin lays all her cards on the table too early. There’s nothing I got from this book that I wouldn’t have got if I’d stopped reading after the first chapter.
There are two timelines in Marlena, the present, and twenty years ago. Simple, right? Except. Twenty years ago, according to this story, characters all had their own cell phones, YouTube and Facebook were just becoming popular. … in 1997?!? Either this is a glaring error, or the ‘present’ chapters are really taking place in 2027, not 2017 – which would be fine! But there’s never any explicit information given about the date, and given the frequency with which this (anachronistic?!) technology is mentioned, this ambiguity becomes very distracting very fast.
What I did like about this book were the questions it raised about moral responsibility, about survivor’s guilt, about how we either put our teenage years behind us or let them define us. There was a lot of talk about ‘truth,’ as well, and how subjective of a concept that is. If at times a bit heavy-handed, this book was at least thought-provoking in that regard. Julie Buntin is a good writer. This just wasn’t a unique enough story for it to make much of an impression on me.