Who, during their adolescence, didn't meet someone who changed or shaped his/her life FOREVER?
During adolescence, our friendships become increasingly complicated and volatile. It is a time of exploration, which can lead us to a different path from the one we intended to take in the first place. That is what happens in Marlena, Julie Buntin's debut novel about the aftermath of an intense friendship between two teenage girls.
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.
Marlena centers on two characters, 15-year-old Cat and 17-year-old Marlena, who become pals when Cat moves to the town in northern Michigan where Marlena lives.
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. 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.
Buntin, in the words of PW’s starred review, “is particularly sensitive to the misery of adolescent angst,” observing how Cat becomes increasingly enamored of the unstable Marlena, who is “musically talented, beautiful, and doomed to die young.” Claudia Ballard, Buntin’s agent, says the novel brings intelligence to the experience of being put under another person’s spell: “The experience of reading the book makes you relive it all over again, and relive it through her eyes.”
When Buntin, 29, was writing Marlena, she was faced with the challenge of making that particular obsession legible to readers. In an interview with Publisher's Weekly, Buntin, 29, says: “It’s hard to capture why a character finds someone else magnetic. How can you translate that into something the reader can connect to?”
Buntin says she's aware of the subgenres—the female-friendship story, the doomed-girl story—into which her novel might be pigeonholed. But these precedents didn’t weigh much on her mind while she was writing. And, for her, such conventions aren’t simply hallmarks of fiction. “Those tropes about girls aren’t just literary,” she says. “They are a part of how girls have to navigate their identities growing up in American culture. And that’s certainly something I was responding to—the very toxic notion that there’s something to romanticize about being damaged, or fucked up, as a teenage girl.”
Julie Buntin's work has appeared in The Atlantic, Cosmopolitan, O, The Oprah Magazine, Slate, Electric Literature, and One Teen Story, among other publications. She teaches fiction at Marymount Manhattan College, and is the director of writing programs at Catapult.
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