Ramblings from a reader + Julie Buntin’s “Marlena”

In case you don’t know it, my life has been in shambles this year. Just one knock-down-drag-out thing after another. I’m hoping, as a family, we’re through the worst of it now.

I decided, a couple of weeks ago, that there was one thing that would define the end of our bad run. And it happened today. So I kind of want to believe that we’re back on the upswing in life, but I don’t want to get too cocky. That’s usually the best way to make sure that we’ll backslide into bad luck.

I learned something about myself this year, something that surprised me. When I’m severely stressed and worried about those I love, I can’t sit down and read. Even when not with that loved one. My brain was too chaotic,  my pacing wrong for reading. I was unable to hold onto a sentence or two, let alone a whole book.

What I learned was during my greatest times of need, the thing I needed disappeared. What I counted on to console me, to be there for me, to take me away from these horrible moments — I just couldn’t connect.

There were a few ‘reads’ here and there, but I listened to many more–mostly books I’d read before. A lot of Stephen King. (More on that later this week).

The few books I did read tended to be thrillers. Most were read in those few weeks when life seemed normal.

I had to make a choice this past week: Do I go back and read all the books I’ve missed in the past few months, or do I jump to present and near future new releases on my ARC reading list?

I decided to jump to the present, but take time to LISTEN to the books I’m very disappointed I missed.

One that falls into that category is Marlena by Julie Buntin. I finished listening to it a couple of days ago. Buntin’s prose faultlessly pulls readers into Northern Michigan, telling the story of teen friendship and addiction. And it was a great listen: Emma Galvin did a fantastic job as reader/narrator.



When Cat’s parents split up, her mom uproots Cat and her brother and takes them to a small, Northern Michigan town, plopping them unceremoniously in a prefab house in the country, with only one visible neighbor. Far from everything she knows, the book smart but naive Cat is lost and angry.

And then she meets Marlena.

Living next door, Marlena’s life is completely different than anything Cat has known. Marlena is beautiful and streetwise, with an incredible singing voice and a firm grasp on algebra.

But she also has a father that cooks meth, a mother who is gone (and probably dead), and an addiction problem. She’s the defacto mother to her little brother, and is bound and determined to live life on the edge.

And Cat goes along for the ride.

Told from Cat’s point of view, readers can see how the troubled Marlena draws in not only Cat, but also her older brother and even her mother. Marlena is charismatic and beautiful, with a fatalistic attitude that makes her nearly hypnotic.

Cat tells her story as an adult looking back, forced to confront her memories when Marlena’s little brother calls out of the blue, and a piece of Cat’s past collides with her wobbly present.

Marlena is dark but beautiful, exposing readers to that long ago emotion of teen friendships. When life not only revolves around crushes and hormones and falling in love, but also in that seemingly invulnerable bond of best-friendship; friendships that are emotionally charged and loyal and vulnerable, entwined and co-dependent and frantic.

Buntin’s prose pulls readers into Cat’s emotional friendship with Marlena while also faultlessly telling us the story of her own fall into addiction, and of her inability to help herself any more than she can help Marlena. The flashes between past and present emphasize Cat’s own struggle beautifully.

The shifting timelines is a device that seems to be nearly played out — or so I thought. And then same could be said of the navel-gazing looks back at troubled friends of the past. But Marlena is just different enough. Maybe its the fact that Cat is looking back at not just her friendship with Marlena, but also on herself. I think it was also Marlena herself; her unintended charisma, but also her unwavering fatalism.

And I’m more than a little in love with Buntin’s writing. I cannot wait to see what else she give us.


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