Thursday, March 29, 2018

Book 122: Marlena

"I've never believed in the idea of an 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 just 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 the chance to be. The world doesn't care that you're just a girl."

Dates read: January 30- February 2, 2017

Rating: 6/10

When you think about it, we usually meet our friends for the most stupidly mundane reasons. A girl who was a friend of mine in high school was someone I'd made friends with in first grade because we were always at the end of the tallest-to-shortest line together. My friend Kailey and I became friends because I just happened to be one of the first people she met when she moved to my school district in fifth grade. One of my closest friends in college was someone who'd become close to my then-boyfriend through the Greek system and we just all started hanging out together. It's strange to think that people who have been huge parts of my life are people I very well would never have known if not for mere accidents of geography and chance.

In Julie Buntin's Marlena, fifteen year-old Catherine encounters the friend who will change her world forever, the titular Marlena, because she happens to move next door to Marlena's family. A year earlier she'd been known as Cathy, a motivated student at a private high school outside of Detroit, but then her parents divorced and her mother, short on resources, moves her and her brother Jimmy to the northern Lower Peninsula to start over. Catherine decides to become Cat, and her seventeen year-old neighbor becomes her best friend. Marlena is what could be delicately described as a troubled young woman: her mother has long since vanished and her father cooks meth in the woods, she's the closest thing her decade-younger brother has to a parent, she's hooked on opiates and has a squicky relationship with the older man who provides her pills to her. The intense friendship that springs up between the girls draws Cat into a new world: drugs and booze and sex and cutting class. But after a year, Cat tells us, Marlena will be dead, found drowned in a shallow stream in the woods.

The story is told on two tracks: mostly the story of the year in which Marlena was a part of Cat's life, but also Cat all grown up, working at a library in New York City, long past that time in her life. Or is she? The unhealthy relationship she developed as a teenager with alcohol is still with her, threatening to unwind her relationship and career. This is not as successful a framing mechanism as it could be: the portions in Michigan are dominant and the underdevelopment of the portions in New York render them almost superfluous. I think with some editing to balance out the narratives better, the book would have been more powerful. As it is, it's good: the friendship between the girls rings true, and Buntin draws them and the supporting characters in ways that make them complex and interesting.

Although I am in no way trying to imply any kind of impropriety, there's no denying that this book has distinct similarities to Emma Cline's The Girls and it's interesting that both came out around the same time. Both are books about young, relatively sheltered teenage girls who find themselves drawn into an intense bond with an older girl. The older girl in question in both stories draws the younger into "dark" situations: drinking, drugs, sex. Both books intersperse the story of the one-time friendship with flash-forwards to the girl all grown up, looking back on that time of her life. And since the comparison is obvious, it has to be said that for me, Cline's is better. Buntin's makes me excited to see how she follows up this debut, but it falls short of greatness and lacks the raw power of The Girls. I'd still recommend it, though, especially for those that enjoy stories about strong female friendships and coming-of-age stories. 

Tell me, blog friends...did you ever have a super close friendship as a teenager?

One year ago, I was reading: The Love Song of Jonny Valentine 

Two years ago, I was reading: Yes Please

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