I’m a little late with my March BOTM club selection (Julie Buntin’s debut novel, Marlena), but you know what? It was just as good in April as March, and someday I’ll catch up again. I actually finished this book a few days ago and have been struggling to put together some formal thoughts. Although I loved this beautiful novel, it’s hard to say exactly why because I have very little in common with the characters and their story. And yet, somehow, I could relate.
About the book: Cat’s parents are newly divorced, and she’s moved with her mom and brother to Silver Lake, Michigan. Her mom cleans rich people’s houses for a living, and her brother, Jimmy, has put off college to work at a plastics factory to help their mom pay for the tiny house they’ve moved into. Next door is a barn that’s been converted into a home for a meth chef and his two uncared-for children: Marlena and Sal. Marlena is a seventeen year old girl trying to take care of herself and her eight year-old brother while also keeping her dad out of legal trouble. Having been introduced to the drug-and-alcohol scene from a young and impressionable age, and having no role models to speak of, she’s already developed some bad habits and a reckless streak. She befriends Cat almost immediately, and leads her down a dangerous path, but she also tries to protect her from some of the worst aspects of her own life. It’s a doomed relationship from the start, but that doesn’t stop them from giving it everything they’ve got.
Marlena is primarily one of those coming-of-age stories that explores what happens when a young girl faces bigger conflicts than she’s equipped to handle yet. It’s told from a future perspective, in alternating viewpoints of the narrator’s present and her past.
“When you grow up, who you were as a teenager either takes on mythical importance or it’s completely laughable. I wanted to be the kind of person who wiped those years away; instead, I feared, they defined me.”
The thing about friendships in literature is that they’re either unrealistically perfect or make the reader want to slap the friend that’s making an obviously horrid decision. In real life, while true friendships are great, there’s always a little jealousy behind the love and desperation behind the loyalty. Maybe you’d do anything for your friend, but you expect the same in return, and yet people are imperfect and often just end up hurting each other even with their good intentions. Marlena hits true friendship right on the nose, complete with those moments when the main character hates her best friend, when she tags along no matter the cost, and when the friend encourages bad choices. It’s a real, gritty friendship.
“I thought being her best friend meant keeping her secrets. I trusted that she knew what she was doing.”
The story benefits from its point of telling, as well. It’s a story about fifteen and seventeen year-old girls, but the narrator is in her mid-thirties by the time she’s telling it. This gives the reader two things: room to doubt some of the details that have been weathered by time and memory, and insight into life and meaning that the narrator lacked as a teenager. Cat can look back and recognize aspects of the story that she didn’t understand yet while she was living it. She sees how she could have helped, in a way that she probably didn’t fully grasp at the time and which gives the story it’s sense of tragic guilt.
“Before that year I was nothing but a soft, formless girl, waiting for someone to come along and tell me who to be.”
Marlena is not a plot-driven book. The reader is told right away which of the characters will not survive, and even the event in the narrator’s present that keeps that part of the story moving forward is a small event, and an anticlimactic one. This, in a sense, fits the story well, though. Marlena’s life was a spark that burned hot and quick, and after it’s gone out there’s simply nothing left. That’s the problem with losing a loved one–they’re just not there, and nothing you can do after can reignite the lost connection. So in a way, the disappointment of Cat’s present fits right in with the tragedy in her past.
“…that day, I learned that time doesn’t belong to you. All you have is what you remember. A fraction; less.”
The only thing I might mention disliking about this book were its sentence fragments. The rules of grammar exist to be broken, I know, it’s an artistic thing; but there were so many beautiful, complete sentences in this book that I’d stumble upon the half-finished ones occasionally and not know what to do with them. There’s nothing wrong with sentence fragments, really, it’s just that they reflect connections in the writer’s thoughts, and sometimes those connections are less clear to readers. It can be a fault of the book when the writing is so lyrical and grammatically perfect that the narration becomes boring, so maybe the fragments help in the end, but they did require a couple of reads sometimes when I was trying to make grammatical sense of a long sentence fragment that just tied back to something mentioned earlier. These awkward little stops and starts were the only problem I had with the writing style.
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. At first, the cover made me wary. I think the white swirls are supposed to maybe represent cigarette smoke, but to me they looked like ribbons. The glowing red letters at the ends of the words maybe represent the glowing end of a cigarette, but at first it just looked like some odd pattern with the lettering. An actual cigarette on the cover might have turned me off from the book completely, so perhaps there is something to be said for the subtle approach, but for most of the time I was reading it just looked nonsensical. Between that and the instant removal of plot by Cat mentioning Marlena’s sad and pathetic death, I was skeptical. But somehow this book made me feel everything, even though my own life has been nothing like the story Cat is telling in this novel. This one’s going to stick with me.
- History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund. Here’s a coming-of-age story about a fifteen year-old girl growing up in Minnesota who meets with death in a strange and painful way before she understands that she could have helped prevent it.
- The Girls by Emma Cline. This one’s also a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl, in this case one who becomes involved with a Manson-esque cult in the 1960’s. It’s full of the same sort of commentary on what it means to be a teenage girl that Buntin does so well in Marlena.
- Faithful by Alice Hoffman. If it’s the tragedy of Marlena that appeals to you, nothing beats Faithful for difficult emotion and the struggle to rise above one’s past. Also, this is a book for lovers of dogs.
Coming up next: I’m currently finishing up Cassandra Clare’s City of Fallen Angels, the fourth book in her Mortal Instruments series. Unlike the first three volumes in this series, this one is a first-time read for me, and without the nostalgia factor it’s a bit of a different experience. I hope I’ll end up enjoying this one as much as the other Cassandra Clare books I’ve read so far, and I also hope to have a review ready for you tomorrow, so stay tuned!
The Literary Elephant