Book Review: Marlena: A Novel by Julie Buntin

I enjoyed reading Marlena.  While it contains components of a YA (young adult) novel, I would classify it as emerging adult.  Fair warning:  Lots of drugs and sex involved.  The good news is that the drugs, and to a lesser extent, sex, drive the plot.  They are necessary to the plot, and fortunately, do not glamorize the consequences of either.  By the way, when I mention drugs here, I am including alcohol.

I didn’t read Marlena with a set purpose in mind.  It wasn’t a book club pick or anything.  In fact, I discovered it by browsing a selection of online books available through my library’s website.  It just sounded good.  It is ultimately a tale of two best friends growing up in a dull northern Michigan town.  It took a while for me to get into the book.  The protagonist, Cat, isn’t the easiest person to get to know.  Also, in the beginning, I didn’t get the fixation on drugs.  She clearly understands right from wrong, but she is fixated on her new best friend Marlena and making the worst possible choices for her life.  By approximately a quarter of the way through the book, I was hooked and found it difficult to put down.

Cat, at least the older, wiser version in the novel, nails what it is like to grow up, to love and lose.  There are so many powerful lines I found myself highlighting them in my Kindle copy, forgetting that it is a library book.  Below are a few of what I consider to be the most powerful lines in the novel.

Close enough to being a writer, isn’t it, working at a library? – Page 45

As an aspiring writer, I loved this quote.  Ultimately, Cat is a writer, but it took her a while to find her voice.  Her empathy for other young women is clearly demonstrated later in the novel in her approach to difficult young library patrons.

For so many women, the process of becoming requires two.  It’s not hard to make out the marks the other one left. – Page 96

This passage really made me think.  I thought of the friends, male and female, in both high school and college, who helped to shape the woman I became.  It made me think of what I wrote about W.M here in particular.  There is something to be said for reconnecting with old friends after years apart and seemingly nothing (and everything) has changed.

I think it’s pretty common for teenagers to fantasize about dying young.  We knew that time would force us into sacrifices – we wanted to flame out before making the choices that would determine who we became.  When you were an adult, all the promise of your life was foreclosed upon, every day just a series of compromises mitigated by little pleasures that distracted you from your former wildness, from your truth. – Pages 129-130

This struck a nerve with me as well.  First, I vividly remember being terrified of dying young as a teenager.  Both of my parents lost close relatives as teenagers, and those stories stayed with me.  Second, the fact that “time would force us into sacrifices” continues to be at the forefront of my mind.  I have always tried to find a way to leave as many doors open as possible.  There is just too much I want to do in life.

I was always aware, in some buried place, that girls my age had just entered their peak prettiness, and that once my pretty years were spent my value would begin leaking away.  I saw it on TV and in magazines, in the faces of my teachers and women in the grocery store, women who were no longer looked at … – Page 143

I so desperately want this not to be true, but it is true.  I loathe this fact about our culture.  Hopefully I will live long enough to see it change, permanently.

Before that year I was nothing but a soft, formless girl, waiting for someone to come along and tell me who to be. – Page 250

Thinking back to what I was like at ages 15-16, I like to think I was somehow stronger than Cat.  Unfortunately, that just isn’t the case; I could closely identify with Cat in the novel.  It makes the novel much darker.  There is a fine line between the successful teenage Cat and the degenerate.

I would recommend the book, especially if you love to write or like reading about love and loss (or even friendship in general).  Is the story sad?  Yes, but it is also full of hope.  It does seem that Cat is at least trying to deal with her loss, with varying degrees of success.

I know I have talked about this before, but I am convinced the right books find me at exactly the right time.  While I certainly wouldn’t call Marlena great literature, it addresses certain topics I would like to cover in my own writing.  I will be rereading this novel.

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