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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. 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.

274 pages, Hardcover

First published April 4, 2017

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Julie Buntin

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,729 reviews
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,990 reviews298k followers
March 31, 2017
Normally I start my reviews with a quote; a nice little taster of what to expect. But with Marlena it was impossible to isolate just a sentence or two. I copied down whole paragraphs that became extracts until it felt like I would be quoting the entire book. I kept thinking I was done and then realizing the next sentence was equally poignant. If you want something, I'll give you this:
I’ve never believed in the innocent bystander. The act of watching changes what happens. Just because you don’t touch anything doesn’t mean you are exempt. You might be tempted to forgive me for being fifteen, in over my head, for not knowing what to do, for not understanding, yet, the way even the tiniest choices domino, until you’re irretrievably grown up, the person you were always going to be. Or in Marlena’s case, the person you’ll never have a chance to be. The world doesn’t care that you’re just a girl.
Let the record show that I was smarter than I looked. And anyway, I touched.

To be honest with you, I wasn't sure about Marlena at first. I've read more than my fair share of these books about teen girls with intoxicating friendships that spiral out of control. Everything from Megan Abbott's fucked up little world (Dare Me, The Fever, etc.) to Elliot Wake's Black Iris to the murderous Boring Girls to last year's (less impressive, IMO) Girls on Fire .

I come back to this theme because the relationships between teenage girls continue to fascinate me. How close they can become, how intense, and how cruel. The fine line between friendship and vindictive jealousy. I was one not that long ago, but it doesn't make me any closer to figuring them out.

What makes Marlena stand out, for me, what gives the book it's power, is the perspective of an adult woman. The story is narrated in past tense by Cat, as she sits in New York with a successful career and loving boyfriend. The sense that she can't shake off the intensity of this one brief period of her past permeates the novel. Her adult eyes bring maturity to the story, seeing things in hindsight that she never noticed at fifteen. It's incredibly effective, moving, and sad.

We learn almost immediately that Marlena - the friend who took over Cat's fifteen-year-old world - will die. Has died. Cat then proceeds to unveil how the friendship was formed and developed, revealing ever more details about Marlena and the person she was.

These kind of books tend to sit right on the line between pretty and purplish prose - and I think Buntin gets the balance just right. It's evocative, creating that whirlwind feeling of emotion as the story moves along, but grounded in insights about humanity and young women that make the book so much more than just an exercise in pretty metaphors. At one point, Cat recalls about Marlena the “glow to her that lives in lost things” and wonders if it was always really there or if that’s just how we see people who have gone.

It is very interesting to see the contrast between the teenage Cat who puts the wild Marlena on a mental pedestal, and the adult who can see her for what she was: a screwed-up girl. So many writers have created the spirited, fascinating tornado of a girl who drags another into her world, but so few breathe this much humanity into her.

A fantastic, beautiful, thought-provoking book.
Great loneliness, profound isolation, a cataclysmic, overpowering sense of being misunderstood. When does that kind of deep feeling just stop? Where does it go? At fifteen, the world ended over and over and over again. To be so young is a kind of self-violence. No foresight, an inflated sense of wisdom, and yet you’re still responsible for your mistakes.

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Profile Image for Adam Dalva.
Author 8 books1,638 followers
June 28, 2017
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.
Profile Image for Always Pouting.
575 reviews762 followers
April 13, 2017
Ok so I kept seeing everyone talking about netgalley and I am such an unrestrained glutton for books that I was obviously had to sign up to get to read books for free early, and so this was the first book I requested, so yay free books.

Anyway I personally thought that though the idea and general story was interesting and had potential, but that the storyline itself was sort of sloppy. The transitioning between different points in time wasn't always clear and memories would just flow from one into the next so it took me a minute to tell that something new was happening. Also the whole thing felt kind of anti climatic and setting up to see Marlena's little brother seems pointless the story could've been told without that. Cat is way to insightful into herself for someone who is supposed to be as self destructive or emotionally unstable the way she says she is, so maybe a little bit more emphasis on showing not telling would have been better.

An okay book, on the lower side of four stars. Could've been better but some of the writing was really good and it's a quick read.
Profile Image for Matthew.
1,219 reviews8,986 followers
January 14, 2020
Review of Marlena
A poem by Matthew McLean

Because of a book club, I did read you
To join in discussion, I did need you
A librarian did recommend
On whose word I did depend
Stream of consciousness I did find
Through repetitious pages I did grind
So-so and unlikable characters I did meet
Drugs, alcohol, and sex did compete
Coming of age was the theme
Loss of innocence to the extreme
Some would say the genre is Young Adult
Because of teens in revolt
But if a teen decided to read
Some attention they might need
Because there are some triggers you must abide
Those mentioned above as well as death (maybe suicide?)
Unfortunately, I must mention
Other more interesting books required my attention
So, three stars in the end
Any higher and truth I would bend
Perhaps it is one you would give an “A”
But for me it was just okay
May 1, 2017
Cat and her brother Jimmy relocate with their mother to a rural town in Northern Michigan. With her parents recent divorce she is no longer able to attend her private boarding school. She feels very isolated living away from the support of her father and friends.

After the move, a friendship develops between Cat and her new neighbor Marlena. Cat is fifteen, impressionable and has lived a sheltered life. Marlena is streetwise and was raised by her drug dealing father and brother. Marlena’s environment has had a negative effect leading to pill addiction and school truancy. Cat is influenced by Marlena’s free spirit and she starts to copy her bad traits. She experiments with drinking, smoking, and cutting school while her mother copes with her own problems. Their lives become intertwined until Marlena’s sudden death.

This is a wonderful debut novel by Julie Buntin. It is a gritty and emotional story of a deep friendship formed during adolescence. The author brings back all the overwhelming feelings developed in our teens. It is amazing that we sometimes cannot remember what we had for dinner two nights ago, but we can recall the friendships and activities from our formative years.

Goodreads giveaway https://www.facebook.com/suzyapproved...
Profile Image for Larry H.
2,509 reviews29.5k followers
March 14, 2017
If you're a fan of The Wallflowers' music, maybe you'll find yourself singing this song while reading Julie Buntin's Marlena : https://youtu.be/RloXtzcCAf8. (Not because of any particular plot point or because the lyrics are symbolic, just because there is a Marlena in the book and one, two, three Marlenas in the song. I'm deep like that.)

"Sometimes I feel like she is my invention. Like the more I say, the further from the truth of her I get. I'm trying to hold palmfuls of sand but I squeeze harder, I tighten my fist, and the quicker it all escapes."

Fifteen-year-old Cat's life is turned upside down when her mother decides the best way to recover from her divorce and regain some financial momentum is to move Cat and her older brother Jimmy from their home in Pontiac, Michigan to the rural town she grew up in, Silver Lake. Cat has to leave her private school, her best friend, and the sense of security she had, plus she'll be moving away from her father, and although he hasn't been attentive since moving in with his much younger girlfriend, she knows she'll miss him.

No one is bargaining for the somewhat rundown house they move into, nor do they expect to be amidst trailer homes and other decrepit homes, where it appears less-than-upstanding activities are taking place. But the bright spot for Cat is meeting Marlena, her next door neighbor. Marlena is two years older, worldly where Cat has been sheltered, bold and brazen where Cat is shy, and when they meet, she is already in the throes of addiction to pills of all kinds, but she generally manages to keep her life together on a day-to-day basis.

Before long, Cat and Marlena are mostly inseparable, although she must navigate Marlena's mood swings and the fear of her unstable father. But with Marlena, Cat also gets to experience many firsts—first kiss, first drink, first cigarette, first time skipping school—and feels like she finally is part of something, even if at times it leaves her unsteady and uncertain. But despite the emotional roller coaster of their relationship, and Cat's recognition that Marlena's behavior is, ultimately, dangerous, she is still unprepared for Marlena's death less than a year later.

This book is told from two perspectives—Cat unfolding the story of her relationship with Marlena and all that occurred during that tumultuous time in Silver Lake, and Cat as an adult, decades later, when the appearance of a ghost from her past causes her to revisit the emotions and the regrets, not to mention the addictions she still lives with all those years later. For the first time, she might have to acknowledge just how profound an effect Marlena had on her life, and in some ways, still does.

"The truth is both a vast wilderness and the tiniest space you can imagine. It's between me and her, what I saw and what she saw and how I see it now and how she has no now. Divide it further—between what I mean and what I say, who I am and who I appear to be, who she said she was and acted like she was and also, of course, who she really was, in all her glorious complexity, all her unknowable Marlena-ness, all her secrets."

There's nothing as intense as a friendship formed in adolescence, particularly amidst the tumultuous teenage years. Marlena is a gripping, emotional account of just how much our lives are affected by those we're closest to when we're younger, and the blessings and the scars of those relationships live on with us well into adulthood.

This is a story of young woman trying to hold her own in a relationship that both made her feel special and inadequate, and a woman years later whose life is still shaped by those days, the decisions she made and those she regrets. Buntin does a terrific job capturing the power dynamics of adolescent friendships, and the after-effects felt long afterward. She's a great storyteller, and this book is packed with emotion, imagery, and lots of instances in which you want to smack the characters for not confronting the issues they see in front of them.

Marlena isn't a perfect book; at times the pacing moved a little slower than I would have liked, and at times Cat alludes to things that happen in the future but I would have liked to understand what led up to some of those instances rather than just be told what happened. But Buntin's use of language and emotion transcends the book's flaws, and definitely keeps you thinking about these characters, even if you've seen them before.

NetGalley and Henry Holt & Company provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

See all of my reviews at http://itseithersadnessoreuphoria.blo....
Profile Image for Charlotte May.
720 reviews1,113 followers
April 29, 2019
"I want to go back. But back where? To the moment before I tasted alcohol, to virginity and not really knowing that things die, back to believing that something great is still up ahead, back to before I made the choices that would hem me in to the life I live now. A life that I regret sometimes, I think, only because it's mine, because it's turned out this way and not some other way, because I can't go back and change what will happen. What happened to her."

This was dark. Reeeeeeeally dark. Catherine (Cat) has moved to Silver Lake with her mum and brother after her parents divorce; she is quickly befriended by her exciting, off-the-rails, tearaway neighbour Marlena. Pretty soon Cat is swept up into a world of drink, drugs, skipping school and petty crimes. She knows Marlena isn't well; there's a difference between getting fucked up for a laugh and being permanently fucked up. To the point where she has nervous breakdowns when her pill supply gets low.

We know from the beginning that Marlena dies. We get a POV of Cat as a teenager, going through all the drama and issues that come with being Marlena's best friend, in a town where the gap between rich and poor is huge, and boredom drives these kids to extremes.
The second POV is Cat as an adult, she is married, but scarred from her past experiences and struggles with a drinking problem. I think what helps set this story apart from other "toxic friendship" stories is that we get this seperate perspective. Cat can view her younger self and realise just how naive she was, how stupid some of her decisions were.

"That day, I learned that time doesn't belong to you. All you have is what you remember. A fraction; less."

Even though ultimately, the end doesn't change and we know what will happen. It is like watching a car crash, I couldn't look away. Marlena's tale serves as a powerful warning about drug use, and how the poorest of communities are hit the worst.

"Nostalgia is no longer considered a sickness, not technically, but it was once...a disease responsible for suicides, the appearance of ghosts, the arrival of disembodied voices. Driving its sufferers manic with longing. Acute melancholy, but specific to an object or place."
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,781 reviews14.2k followers
April 14, 2017
'3.5 Cat is in her thirties, has a drinking problem and is trying to save a valued relationship, when she receives a phone call from someone she hasn't seen since he was a child. This takes her back to when she was fifteen, her parents divorced, moved to a new town in rural Michigan with her mom and older brother, worried about fitting in this new life. One night she meets her next door neighbor, Marlena, seventeen and she is so different, seemingly full of life, exciting and against all odds they become friends. This friendship ends in a big tragedy but the effects of this friendship are long reaching and vividly remembered.

An intense friendship, as only those made at that age can be, I so remember this time in my own life. Marlena's life seems exhilarating to Cat, but under the layers it is anything but, full of drugs, sex and things Cat doesn't understand until the end. This is a dark book, intense at times and one can't help but feel for this young girl who lives this life, cannot envision another, sees no way out.

Things that happen in the past, at a time of life when everything seems so dramatic, open ended for some, I could and did identify with this story. It jumps back and forth, from the past to Cat's life now and of course the past story was the most effective. It is beautifully written, but devastating, tragic. How many of is wish we could go back and change things, either for ourselves or for someone we cared about? Understood the full impact of what another person was going through?

As Cat thinks, " Who can recognize the ending as it's happening. What we live, it seems to me, is pretty much always a surprise."

ARC from Netgalley.
Profile Image for Danielle.
831 reviews450 followers
July 3, 2021
This was a sad read about regret, friendship and family. 😢 But it’s also a teen girls coming of age story, as she falls in with the wrong crowd. It’s really a depressing read, but intriguing as well. 🥺 I finished this in one day, cause I just needed to know how it would end. 🛑Trigger warnings: addiction, drug use, sexual abuse. 🛑
Profile Image for Laura.
425 reviews1,253 followers
May 31, 2017
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 older..it 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.
Profile Image for Debra .
2,415 reviews35.2k followers
July 9, 2018
Have you ever read a book where you found yourself reading the beginning over and over again, but not in a good way? I started and stopped this book so many times when I initially picked it up. I really, really struggled with getting into this book. I read three other books while I struggled with the beginning of this book. Once I found my footing, so to speak, I was able to finish the book without any other issues with reading it.

“The people we surround ourselves with either raise or lower our standards. They either help us to become the best version of ourselves or encourage us to become lesser versions of ourselves. We become like our friends..." -Matthew Kelly

Cat's parent's divorced and she moved with her brother and Mother to Silver Lake, Michigan. She had to leave her old life behind - her school, her home, her friends, her father. All these losses are huge and not easy to cope with. Cat could really use a friend and that is when she meets Marlena, her neighbor who quickly becomes her best friend. Marlena is beautiful, two years older and has a lot of issues, one of which is taking pills. The two teens form a close bond and during the year, Cat experiences a lot of change and feels accepted by her peer. Cat views Marlena as being worldly and free spirited and begins to develop some bad habits of her own. During their intense friendship, Cat must deal with her friend's mood swings, dangerous behavior and those in Marlena's life. Their year long friendship ends when Marlena is found in six inches of water.

The story goes back and forth from the present day when Cat is a thirty-four-year-old adult and back to the pivotal year during her adolescence. Cat, as an adult, has her own struggles and looks back at her adolescence and how that time during her teens shaped her life, and continues to affect the choices she has made. I enjoyed how the Author showed how the choices we make and those we have in our lives can shape us and change us especially during those formative years.

This book was a solid 3 star read, which means that after my initially struggle with this book, I did enjoy it and found it to be very well written, but it didn't blow me away. I did have a hard time connecting with the characters and found parts to be slow but not so slow that I wanted to put the book down. I enjoyed the premise of this book and had higher hopes for it especially after reading some glowing reviews. We all can't love the same books and although this book did not WOW me as I had hoped, I enjoyed it. For me this was good not great.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All the thoughts and opinions in this review are my own.

Read more of my reviews at www.openbookpost.com
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,669 reviews2,660 followers
June 22, 2018
I managed to miss Marlena when it first came out last year; luckily, I had another chance at reading it when it was released in paperback a couple of months ago. It bears some thematic similarities to Emma Cline’s The Girls, Rosalie Knecht’s Relief Map, Andrée Michaud’s The Last Summer, Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky Ones and especially Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, but Marlena is a cut above. It’s basically a flawless debut, one I can’t recommend too highly. Occasionally I weary of writing straightforward reviews – let’s be honest, you get tired of reading them, too – so I’m returning to a format I last used for my review of The Animators and pulling out four reasons why you must be sure not to miss this book.

1. Michigan. Have you ever read another book set in northern Michigan? After her parents’ divorce, Cat moves to Silver Lake with her mom and older brother, and almost immediately meets Marlena Joyner, their new next-door neighbor. Although Marlena drowns in suspicious circumstances less than a year later – this is not a spoiler; it is part of the back cover blurb and is also revealed on the fourth page – her impact on Cat will last for decades. The setting pairs perfectly with the novel’s tone of foreboding: you have a sense of these troubled teens being isolated in their clearing in the woods, and from one frigid winter through a steamy summer and into the chill of the impending autumn, they have to figure out what in the world they are going to do with their terrifying freedom.
Probably most teenagers think where they live is boring. But there aren’t words for the catastrophic dreariness of being fifteen in northern Michigan at the tail end of winter, when you haven’t seen the sun in weeks and the snow won’t stop coming and there’s nowhere to go and you’re always cold and everyone you know is broke…

2. Emulation and Envy. Catherine wants to be just like 17-year-old Marlena: experienced, sensual and insouciant. She puts childish hobbies and studious habits behind her and remakes herself as “Cat” at her new school. Through Marlena she develops a taste for alcohol and cigarettes. She also turns truant and starts hanging out with drug dealers at all hours. All along she’s conveniently ignoring that Marlena is essentially parentless – her mother left and her father cooks meth – and that popping pills and sleeping around aren’t exactly a great strategy for getting out of Silver Lake. Living with a single mom who works as a cleaner, Cat also starts to envy the rich incomers whose summer houses she helps to clean. In the scene that may well linger with me the longest, Cat tastes whole almonds for the first time at the Hodsons’ mansion and steals a stash.
I looked up to Marlena—she was tough and beautiful and I never once thought she wasn’t in control. … Even at fifteen I wasn’t dumb enough to glamorize Marlena’s world, the poverty, the drugs that were the fabric of everything, but I was attracted to it all the same.

3. Teenage Shenanigans. I was the squeakiest of squeaky clean kids in high school, but it’s always fun to experience very different lives through fiction. With Cat and Marlena you’ll get to skip school, throw unsupervised parties, and pull all manner of pranks. Their most impressive spectacle is affixing giant papier-mâché genitalia to a Big Boy restaurant statue as an act of revenge on a teacher who hit on Marlena.
Everything was happening in consequence-less free fall … the two of us made one perfect, unfuckwithable girl. Nothing could hurt us, as long as we weren’t alone.

4. Hindsight Is Everything. Cat is writing this nearly 20 years later. In short interludes labeled “New York,” we learn about her adult life: a job in a library, a husband named Liam, and an ongoing struggle with a bad habit she formed under Marlena’s influence. When Marlena’s little brother Sal gets in touch and asks to visit Cat in New York City to hear about the sister he barely remembers, it sparks a trip back into memory. This narrative is like an exorcism or a system detox for Cat: not until she gets it out can she truly live her own life.
Those days were so big and electric that they swallowed the future and the past … a difficulty letting go of the past can run in families, like a problematic thyroid.

This is one of those books where the narration is so utterly convincing that you don’t so much read the plot as live it out. I felt no distance between Cat and me. When a first-person voice is this successful, you wonder why an author would ever choose anything else.

Originally published, with images, on my blog, Bookish Beck.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,114 followers
July 16, 2017
I don't think I would have picked this book up if it weren't for the Tournament of Books Summer Reading. The cover is not super striking, for one thing.

But it starts strong and keeps going. You know in the first few pages that Marlena died and that the narrator, Cat, is still deeply effected as an adult. Chapters move between the 1990s in rural Michigan, where Cat moves in next to Marlena at age 15, and present day New York, where she has been contacted by Marlena's kid brother. The narrator having aged helps add some perspective - there is some of the feeling of "now vs. then" and some hindsight that adds richness to the story. Not just a coming of age, but of what happens after you become.

The Michigan of the novel is not just rural, it is poor, it is drug-laden, it is not upwardly mobile. Marlena is 17 and pulls Cat into her circle, while still keeping her at arms' length much of the time.
"At fifteen, the world ended over and over and over again. To be so young is a kind of self-violence. No foresight, an inflated sense of wisdom, and yet you're still responsible for your mistakes. It's a little frightening to remember just how much, and how precisely, I felt."
There are hints in this of what I liked about My Brilliant Friend - rough environments that make girls grow up too soon, with damage on the inside. The unrelenting insult of work that hardly pays the bills (for those who go after legal employment.)

I also felt there were moments elevated by the writing itself. I liked when the author would step back from the dialogue and events and improvise for a while.
Profile Image for Caro (Bookaria).
617 reviews20.5k followers
June 20, 2017
The book describes the friendship between teenagers Cat and Marlena. Cat has just moved into town after her parents' divorce and Marlena befriends her soon after Cat's arrival. It has elements of coming-of-age story and obsessive friendships with toxic people.

The book alternates between present time of 34 year-old Cat and the period she spent with the troubled Marlena during their adolescent years and it is told from the point of view of Cat.

At the beginning I thought the book was similar to The Roanoke Girls  which is a book I loved , however I grew bored with this one early on. Although it is beautifully written I lost interest in the characters and their story. I like flawed characters but I did not care about these two. Maybe the book would have been more interesting for me if the author would have introduced some mystery regarding the death of Marlene and would have slowly and suspensefully revealed the details it as the book goes on.

Overall is ok. Great writing but not as interesting.


About the author:

Profile Image for ☮Karen.
1,533 reviews9 followers
April 29, 2017
During our formative teen years, it's highly possible that one year out of all others will remain with us and shape our lives for better or worse. Cat's year is her fifteenth, having just moved to Northern Michigan with her brother and divorced mom, when she meets the very intriguing, older (17 yo) neighbor Marlena. From the outset we know that Marlena's homelife is not typical -- her mother has left, her father is one you wish would go away too, and drug dealers are everywhere. We also know from early on that Marlena's days are numbered, and Cat's narration will slowly reveal how one manages to drown in an inch of water. Cat's loneliness and Marlena's neediness bring them together to form an odd couple-type friendship, but at Cat's young age she is vulnerable and easily immersed in Marlena's world.

From those times in Michigan, Cat moves to New York and is about to meet up with Marlena's brother at his request after many years, sure to dredge up memories of the once vibrant and colorful Marlena. But even without this memory prompt, however, you come to realize how Marlena's life and her death are still haunting Cat all these years later. The story itself is haunting; very dark and pervaded with sadness.

This author is one to watch. Her talent is quite evident, and the dialogue and character development are exceptional. Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for a review copy.
Profile Image for Doug Bradshaw.
257 reviews222 followers
May 21, 2017
I look at the picture of Julie Buntin, a very pretty and young author, and I'm amazed at the depth of her writing and her understanding and ability to describe the minute details of the psychology of adolescent friendships. Others have said there is some similarity to Ferrante's work, "My Brilliant Friend" and I have to agree. In some ways, this book takes that whole highly personal experience, the coming of age story of two girls, to an even higher level with the background of drugs and alcohol and one of the girls the tragic result of almost no parenting, and extreme physical and sexual abuse partially fueled by her addiction to drugs.

And yet she becomes the best friend and almost obsessively compulsively so, of a good younger girl, a real achiever, who is inexperienced and in bad need of closeness and friendship. And we watch the younger girl start to spiral down into this messy and horrible world, hoping she won't be pulled all the way into hell.

The story is touching and interesting as it explains how and why both girls do what they do, the older girl, Marlena, a survivor of exploitation of her father and other guys and a few horrible men, the younger girl, Cat, a needy smart girl having been abandoned by her father, but with the stability of a caring mother, single, with no skills, trying to survive, sometimes using food stamps, doing what it takes with cleaning jobs for the wealthy.

Get ready for an excellent R rated read. And think of your own experiences as a young person and some of the ways the kids you grew up with have shaped your own life, your feelings about love and relationships, your early experiences with sex, maybe drugs, stupid things you did that could have ruined your life. And for those older readers who lived in a tamer time, learn a little more of what it is like today for kids with all of the great things the internet brings, the pier pressures, the lack of parenting, and the multitude of vices available to them that can and do swallow some kids and ruin them at very young ages, some even die.
1,642 reviews92 followers
October 28, 2016
I won this book as a GR Give-Away. The narrator of this novel is a functioning alcoholic in her mid-30s who is recalling a pivotal period 20 years earlier that set her on a downward spiral. During her sophomore year of high school, her parents’ divorce yanked her out of a private prep school where she was flourishing and dumped her in a semi-rural town of modular homes and dilapidated trailers, where people struggled to survive on minimum wage jobs and dreams of the future rarely looked beyond the weekend high. Angry and dispirited, the narrator came under the influence of Marlena, her new neighbor who typified this setting, overly sexualized, neglected by a meth cooking father and addicted to oxy herself. Looming over this recollection is the knowledge that Marlena will be dead before the year ends. This is the type of story that I gravitate to, a book yearning for pathos, one that invites me into the pain, fear, desires of the characters, and in so doing, increases my empathy. But, for some reason that I don’t fully understand, I never felt with these characters. I understood their motivations, but never moved inside their skin. In large part, I think it was due to the adult voice of the narrator who sounded more like her 15 year old self in tone and self-awareness than as a professional adult. Apparently arrested in her development, paralyzed by survivor guilt, the narrator remains under the spell of this haunted, hurting, drug addicted neighbor girl. It felt as if both girls died at the end of the novel, the difference was that the narrator was still trying to persuade her body to accept that truth. I suspect that I want some moment of insight, some sense of growth in novels that feature narrative recollections. This character never had that break through. I understood why Marlena would have had such power over a disoriented new-comer to this community; I never understood why she continued to hold the narrator under her sway two decades later. I was also distracted by the time frame. If I assume that the narrator was living in the year of the book’s publication, than the bulk of the story takes place in the mid-1990s. I was living in a middle class suburban community at that time. Every teen did not yet have a cell phone, texting was not the automatic means of communication, and adolescents were not uploading everything to Utube in that world. These elements of the story felt anachronistic. I would give this 3.5 stars.
Profile Image for Suzzie.
916 reviews162 followers
December 5, 2017
This was a hard book to rate. There are parts I was completely into the book and other parts I just didn't feel it. It's a beautifully written novel and the realistic feel of it is incredible so give it a reading for sure.

Overall, devastatingly beautiful but my attention was not completely absorbed in it.
Profile Image for Chloe Caldwell.
Author 10 books608 followers
February 9, 2017
Marlena is a beautiful and tragic story of friendship, addiction, loneliness, family, and poverty. Julie Buntin was able to put words to sentiments I've felt and have never been able to articulate. A riveting novel, a twisted coming-of-age story, a heartbreaker.
Profile Image for Tina Loves To Read.
2,529 reviews1 follower
March 18, 2021
This is a Young Adult book. I loved what this book was trying to do, but I do not think was token where it needed to go. Most of the first half of the book I really hated the book, and the second half of the book was just ok. I kept reading it only because I really wanted to find out what happen to Marlena. (*)
Profile Image for Cortney -  The Bookworm Myrtle Beach.
861 reviews141 followers
January 3, 2020
We know from the very beginning that Marlena dies... that doesn't make it any easier when it happens. This story was sad and heartbreaking, with an inevitable ending. It is the kind of book that stays with you long after you read it.
Profile Image for MaryBeth's Bookshelf.
391 reviews91 followers
April 23, 2018
I really loved this book even though it was a difficult read. When Cat's parents divorce and her mother takes her and her brother to Michigan, her life is forever changed. There she meets Marlena. Life has not been kind to Marlena and she turns to drugs and alcohol to cope with her issues. Within a year Marlena will be dead and Cat's life forever haunted by her friend.

Profile Image for PinkAmy loves books, cats and naps .
2,340 reviews228 followers
February 10, 2018

From the blurb, MARLENA should have been a novel that I devoured. A dysfunctional friendship that ends in a tragic death, still haunting the one left behind. Julie Buntin’s writing never pulled me in. I couldn’t connect with the characters and didn’t feel anything.

MARLENA was on my radar from the prerelease buzz, but something always pulled me back. I’m glad I waited until Kindle had it for $2.99.

Plenty of reviews enjoyed MARLENA more than me, so hopefully if you choose to read, you’ll like the story and characters more than me.
Profile Image for Lisa (NY).
1,547 reviews602 followers
July 5, 2018
At its core, Marlena is about an intense, short-lived friendship between two teenage girls, Marlena and Kat. And the powerful escape their friendship offers from the world that surrounds them - of poverty, drugs, and their own broken families. It is also about the impact of Marlena on Kat's life as she becomes an adult. Beautifully written. So well done!
Profile Image for Book of the Month.
229 reviews12.7k followers
March 1, 2017
By Judge Steph Opitz

There is something compelling about certain teenage female friendships. The intensity that can rival a great romance. The desperate loyalty, the inexplicable need to pour your every secret into your friend vessel. The mutual adoration that’s near-sexual. Perhaps because, beyond “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” the nebulous shape of a best friendship requires more guarding and defending and is therefore more sacred. I don’t know. But I've had relationships like this, and so have most women I know. And Julie Buntin, in her raw debut novel, nails it.

Like any good novel, the stakes seem higher in Marlena. In this friendship, Cat, age 15, is recently plucked from her home and moved to a trailer park in northern Michigan as a result of her parents’ messy divorce. Her innocence, or maybe just naivety, are the yin to her new neighbor Marlena’s wild and worldly yang. Just two years older, but motherless and saddled with a meth-making father, Marlena has been exposed to much more of the darker sides of life.

Marlena is that kid you don't want your own kid playing with. Yet Cat’s aloof mother is too self-involved to notice or care. Without adult supervision, the girls’ friendship flourishes over the course of a rowdy year as they begin to skip school and get into… pretty much exactly what you’d imagine they’d get into–sex, drugs, booze, mischief, etc. While this freedom is new and thrilling to Cat, it’s more of the same, and then dangerously worse, for Marlena.

The book is framed as Cat, now an adult living in New York and struggling as a functioning alcoholic, is still forever remembering and reliving her youth, reeling from Marlena’s untimely death. In recounting her year of friendship with Marlena, Cat’s battle scars show, and she lays bare the emotional journey that was both the high-point, and low-point of her life.

The intimacy of the friendship, and the intimacy of the novel, jogged memories of my high school girlfriends. And, while I’ll definitely pass this book on to them (because really, it’s so excellent) I will also give them a warning that the story hits close to home: we too lost the wild, intoxicating friend in our group during our senior year (a girl very much like Marlena). It was painful in many of the ways that Cat feels, and in many ways that Cat could never feel. Buntin taps into something authentic, a core nugget so true that it feels like, in reading this novel, Marlena happened to me. Her loss became a loss in my life. And, even if this story is foreign to your own life experiences, it’s so deeply felt that it will, nonetheless, be worth the emotional ride.

Read more at https://www.bookofthemonth.com/marlen...
Profile Image for Jason Diamond.
Author 8 books122 followers
March 17, 2017
Tore through this. It's going to be tough to find a better debut novel this year.
Profile Image for Barbara**catching up!.
1,394 reviews804 followers
September 21, 2017
“Tell me what you can’t forget, and I’ll tell you who you are”. This is the first sentence of the novel “Marlena” by author Julie Buntin. This is a haunting story that examines the intensity of adolescent girl friendships. It’s a story of girls who when neglected and impoverished can easily turn towards dangerous and risky behavior. It’s a cautionary tale, one that shows how easily a good kid can cascade into disaster.

The narrator is Catherine (Cat), who moves to a small town in up-state Michigan on the tail of her parent’s divorce. Cat was ripped from her exclusive private school and thrown into a middle of nowhere school. Cat is 15 when she meets her alluring neighbor Marlena. As now 30-year-old Cat reminisces, she sees danger from the start.

Marlena lives with her dad, who makes meth and crack in a train car behind the renovated barn she lives in. Cat is rudderless after her parent’s divorce and decides she wants a new identity, something exciting and interesting. Cat’s mom is still reeling from the divorce and self-involved setting up the “perfect storm” of disaster. Cat is 15 and Marlena is 17. Marlena lives risky behavior; nothing is too risky for her. Cat, while introspective and in full knowledge that what she’s doing is wrong, can’t escape the allure of danger, of not being good.

This is a story of one year; their friendship lasted only one year. Yet rarely does a day go by that Cat as an adult, doesn’t think about Marlena. This is an intense read. It’s a read that could send a Mom over the edge if she sees similar behavior in her children. It’s a début novel of Buntin, and I do hope she writes more.
Profile Image for Jessica Sullivan.
521 reviews442 followers
October 22, 2017
This book, with its vivid and piercing prose, brought me back to my own experiences in high school—to the insecurity and recklessness, the urgency that bonds teenage girls together, the regrets that still plague me to this day.

After being uprooted to a dismal Michigan town in the middle of nowhere, Cat is immediately drawn to her next-door neighbor, Marlena, who is everything she's not: beautiful, mysterious, daring, experienced. The two girls quickly become inseparable, and Cat's days and nights become a blur of drinking and drugs—ecstasy, meth, Oxys.

Cat recalls their times together years later as a 34-year-old adult. We know early on that Marlena died shortly after turning 18, and that Cat had been racked with survivor's guilt ever since. She admits to being an unreliable narrator, acknowledging that her memories are tainted by nostalgia, making Marlena out to be grander than she was.

Of course, this is often how memory and nostalgia function—the good cements into your mind while the bad is relegated to the back. There's a lot that was uncomfortably familiar about this book for me, and I suspect many female readers might feel the same way. Buntin really nails the experience of being a teenage girl in a rural town, when alcohol and drugs are all you have to break up the overwhelming monotony and angst. The sense of place she establishes is just as vivid and essential as the characters.

My one main critique of this book is that it gets a little clunky going back and forth from teenage Cat to adult Cat—the latter interrupting the flow of the former. But Buntin's writing is the kind I was able to immerse myself in, so that I smelled what Cat and Marlena smelled, tasted what they tasted, felt what they felt.
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