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There’s a certain quiet agony that comes from never knowing, especially never knowing something you had taken for granted. When an answer is impossible, and when that impossibility is not a poetic thing but a bluntly finite truth, it begets a nagging, ever-present ache that taunts and torments with its futility. There also may be something of a freedom: the freedom to imagine an ending that never will be, to imagine the twists and turns of a possible future because there will never come a present that will prove you wrong. But that freedom is a bitter thing.

This is one of the elements of memory, one of the many faces of loss, especially a loss that happens so early on in someone’s life. When a life is cut short, the parallel universes of possibility (now impossibility) of futures may never fully fade for those left behind. Simultaneously, the years, months, days and moments lived can take on a blindingly sharp significance, every gesture, sentence and experience granted so much more weight when it’s revealed that it was such a large percentage of that life’s experience, that nothing will ever come to counter it.

"MARLENA is a powerful work, of girlhood and memory, longing and becoming, and unfulfilled promise. Buntin’s sentences capture and sear. This is an exercise in form and character --- a transformative, urgent, excellent read."

These concerns and more are at the heart of Julie Buntin’s exquisite debut novel, MARLENA. New to a suffocatingly small Michigan town, Cat is an ostensibly average 15-year-old girl. She excels at school and loves books, and watches TV with her friends or hangs out with them at the mall. Until she meets her neighbor, the shockingly pretty, manic, drugged-out Marlena. She’s charismatic and desperately damaged, in that blindingly obvious way that makes it seem like she must, somehow, have it all under control. Cat becomes intoxicated. School and youth fall by the wayside as Cat’s identity becomes intricately, inextricably entwined with Marlena’s, seeking validation, visibility, pleasure, and something else she can never quite name.

The novel alternates between the perspectives of Cat at 15 and Cat at around 34. The book is rooted at 34, but the majority of pages and emotion comes from her memories at 15. Thirty-four takes a clear backseat --- not only as it’s a vehicle for memory, but because much of Cat began and ended at 15, and that’s at the heart of the story. Thirty-four sees Cat mostly okay, at least on the surface. She has a caring husband, a hard-earned solid position at a library --- and a persistent drinking problem that keeps dragging her and her memories back to 15. Thirty-four-year-old Cat has never lived as brilliantly, dangerously or vividly as she did at 15, and though her memories of that time may be distorted by distance, grief and idealism, they in many ways shape and overshadow her present.

Marlena died that year. This isn’t a spoiler. Buntin makes it clear early on and reinforces it throughout. The year of drugs and experimentation that Cat and Marlena spent together was a bright burning out, and Cat spends the rest of her life unable to shake that she could be considered complicit and, more importantly, that she will never know what Marlena would become. That’s at the heart of the pain --- Cat doesn’t know what a girl like Marlena could have turned into. Or, Marlena. To Cat, there are no other girls “like” Marlena. At the same time, she comes to realize that many, many girls are just like her. Marlena could have grown up and gotten a decent job, but that doesn’t seem likely. She could have turned into absolutely nothing --- Marlena wore the fact of exchanging her body for drugs or money like a careless sundress, nothing urgent or strange about it. Cat doesn’t know, and she never will. She can never go back to who they were, but she also can never truly leave it.

In some ways, Cat was in love with her. Fifteen-year-old love, with stoned half-kisses and secrets too young to have much meaning, gazing at her in the mirror and sucking in your stomach or brushing your hair out of your eyes like she does, almost subconsciously. Nothing serious, but then it, too, never had a chance to either fade or become something significant, Marlena’s death giving it a weight it may never otherwise have had. Cat compares everyone in her life to Marlena in some way now, without meaning to --- the homeless girl who trespasses in her library; the new, duller female friends in her life; her husband; and even herself. In this way, Marlena has been gone for almost half her life. In this way, Marlena never leaves her. In this way, memory takes on a rosy yet decrepit brilliance, in its tragedy and its potency, with everything Marlena gave her and everything Marlena never would. Cat’s present will always be in the shadow of this memory.

MARLENA is a powerful work, of girlhood and memory, longing and becoming, and unfulfilled promise. Buntin’s sentences capture and sear. This is an exercise in form and character --- a transformative, urgent, excellent read.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on April 14, 2017

by Julie Buntin

  • Publication Date: April 3, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 1250160154
  • ISBN-13: 9781250160157