STARRED REVIEW
April 2017

Haunted by a brief, intoxicating friendship

By Julie Buntin
Review by

From its brilliant opening sentence, “Tell me what you can’t forget, and I’ll tell you who you are,” Julie Buntin’s debut novel creates a hauntingly original atmosphere for a familiar story. In Marlena, a woman in her 30s recalls events from two decades earlier, when a brief friendship had a profound impact on her life.

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From its brilliant opening sentence, “Tell me what you can’t forget, and I’ll tell you who you are,” Julie Buntin’s debut novel creates a hauntingly original atmosphere for a familiar story. In Marlena, a woman in her 30s recalls events from two decades earlier, when a brief friendship had a profound impact on her life.

When Cat was 15, she and her “full-blown poor” family, which included her divorced mother and older brother, moved from their home in a Detroit suburb to a “grubby half-acre” in the woods of Silver Lake, Michigan. As she helps unload the U-Haul, Cat meets Marlena Joyner, two years her senior, who lives nearby in “a renovated barn coated in layers of lilac paint that were sticky to the touch.”

Cat and Marlena become best friends. Their friendship lasts only a year, until Marlena “suffocated in less than six inches of ice-splintered river.” But it’s a life-changing year for Cat, one in which Marlena introduces her to a world very different from her accustomed environment. She encourages Cat, an excellent student in her previous school, to cut classes, drink heavily and take recreational drugs. And Marlena’s father is hardly a stabilizing influence; he cooks meth in a railcar behind their house.

Today, Cat has a prominent job in New York, but the effects of her Silver Lake years remain. She still struggles with alcoholism, and when Marlena’s younger brother, Sal, who was 8 when his sister died, calls Cat to say that he’s in town, events from a past she never quite forgot come rushing back.

Despite an error in chronology—YouTube, which figures into the narrative, wasn’t around 20 years ago—Marlena is still an unforgettable portrait of teenage confusion and experimentation, a time when one discovers “that time doesn’t belong to you. All you have is what you remember.”

 

This article was originally published in the April 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Marlena

Marlena

By Julie Buntin
Holt
ISBN 9781627797641

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