Marlena by Julie Buntin

 An electric debut novel about love, addiction, and loss; the story of two girls and the feral year that will cost one her life, and define the other’s for decades

Everything about fifteen-year-old Cat’s new town in rural Michigan is lonely and off-kilter, until she meets her neighbor, the manic, beautiful, pill-popping Marlena. Cat, inexperienced and desperate for connection, is quickly lured into Marlena’s orbit by little more than an arched eyebrow and a shake of white-blond hair. 

Marlena by Julie Buntin download for free full ebook
Marlena by Julie Buntin
As the two girls turn the untamed landscape of their desolate small town into a kind of playground, Cat catalogues a litany of firsts—first drink, first cigarette, first kiss—while Marlena’s habits harden and calcify. Within the year, Marlena is dead, drowned in six inches of icy water in the woods nearby. Now, decades later, when a ghost from that pivotal year surfaces unexpectedly, Cat must try to forgive herself and move on, even as the memory of Marlena keeps her tangled in the past.

Alive with an urgent, unshakable tenderness, Julie Buntin’s Marlena is an unforgettable look at the people who shape us beyond reason and the ways it might be possible to pull oneself back from the brink read more


  • Extraordinarily well-written book that tells the story of a doomed friendship between teenage girls. Shades of WHO WILL RUN THE FROG HOSPITAL? (less funny but significantly more wrenching and therefore better), the Neapolitan Novels, and, in its examination of the opoid crisis and resolutely mid-western focus, a contemporary Marilyn Robinson.

    The frame narrative here is smart - we get the story in flashback, as Cat, the lead, struggles with alcoholism (very believable and smartly depicted) as she thinks of her dead friend. There is no mystery here, just a slow approach toward T-0 when we know Marlena will die, but there are still quite a few heart-in-throat moments. In particular, a beautifully set-up house party caused me a great deal of subway angst. We care about Cat. She has an agreeable way of creating major issues for herself without losing her moral core.

    But all that - the strong plot, the timely issues, the excellent supporting cast (this is a wonderfully PEOPLED novel) - pale in comparison to the sentences. It's almost silly to excerpt any; you can pick up the book anywhere and find something great. Buntin alternates cadence and tone skillfully, and has a perfect ear for teenage dialogue. She makes me want to write.
    It's funny: I put this down after 3 or 4 pages when I started reading it. I felt like it was going to be bleak, and I wasn't sure I could face it. Don't make the same mistake I did.
  • I certainly love a story about an intoxicating female friendship, those that venture into coming-of-age territory. Books where a friendship maybe causes a young girl to go completely off the tracks. I enjoy the psychology of it. This one does the thing I enjoyed most about The Girls by: Emma Cline, which is include the use of a retrospective narrator. The thing is...that one did this so much better.

    What is fascinating is how you know the narrator is deeply affected by this time of their youth. She is looking back wistfully on the past, on a time filled with regrets. As an adult she can view her friendship in a more honest way for what it was, when as a teenager it was an all-consuming friendship that may have caused Cat to spiral a bit.

    When Cat moves down the street from Marlena with her mother & brother, her life changes. Marlena is from a very different world than Cat. It's not that she is two years is because she has been exposed to a much darker life. Addiction, overly-sexualized, living in poverty without a mother. From the beginning we know Marlena's days are numbered.

    This isn't a mystery, though. While we know Marlena dies, we even find out how early on. I thought there may be a twist surrounding the death, but I was wrong. Expecting that will only harm the reading experience because you'll feel letdown. That's not the point to this story.

    The point of Cat looking back on this time is Marlena's younger brother having called to meet up with Cat. She knew him when he was a child sparking her recollection of the friendship with his sister. This didn't exactly feel necessary. It never went anywhere and ultimately felt like a waste of time.

    The prose got to be too much at times. My main issue is really that this one paled in comparison to The Girls, which I read just a few weeks ago.


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