Marlena – Julie Buntin

Following her parents’ divorce, fifteen-year-old Cat is moved to a small town in Michigan with her mother and older brother. Previously a hard-working student and well-behaved teenager, she decides to use this relocation to reinvent herself. Cat soon becomes close friends with Marlena, her beautiful and troubled next-door-neighbour, and begins to shape her life around her. The book alternates between Cat as a teenager in Michigan and as an adult in New York, as we begin to understand the events that led to Marlena’s untimely death, a year after the two first met.
 
Buntin expertly captures that uniquely teenage experience of moulding yourself into the person that you think will be loved by your peers. Cat has been unmoored at a pivotal moment of her life and she forms a new persona with urgency. She latches onto Marlena with such believable intensity, failing to fully recognise the extent of Marlena’s issues and trauma. I loved how Buntin encapsulated how friendships between teenage girls can have such depth of feeling that they are almost romantic in their nature. Reading this book takes you back to those strong teenage emotions of love and hatred, envy and admiration. In Marlena, these passions are caught up in a haze of drugs, alcohol, loss, neglect and poverty, right as our characters are on the cusp of adulthood. The tragedy that you know is coming feels inevitable to all but our fifteen-year-old narrator.
 
This is a wonderfully crafted book about addiction and loss and how much we can (or cannot) change the lives of those around us. It explores how people’s lives can be shaped forever by people they knew for only a brief time, and how you can remain haunted by the events of your past, no matter how much you try to bury them. The anxieties of teenage life and friendship are depicted with such craft that I felt myself a teenager again. I was mesmerised.