Marlena by Julie Buntin

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Edition: Picador, 2017, 288 pages.

Julie Buntin’s debut novel Marlena is a coming of age story that explores the complex friendship dynamic between two teenage girls Catherine “Cat” and Marlena.

The story is told retrospectively by Cat, who’s in her thirties, living in New York and is looking back at her teenage years, specifically at her brief but intense friendship with her reckless, enigmatic neighbour Marlena. We know from the very start that within a year of their meeting, Marlena dies, but this close friendship casts a long shadow over Cat’s life, who it seems still hasn’t haunted by the loss of her friend, even though, despite their close connection, it was a very destructive friendship.

It has this kind of hero/villain-sidekick vibe to it, where Cat is seduced by Marlena’s rebellious spirit and the sense of freedom in courting danger. Also, it felt like Cat doesn’t just want to be friends with Marlena but to actually become Marlena. There is a constant sense of jealousy and bitterness that permeates Cat’s narration like she could never get close enough to Marlena, like she’s somehow responsible for what happened to her.

The book has a haunting atmosphere and even though I grew up in a completely different part of the world, I think it’s great at capturing the universal, often all-consuming, nature of teenage friendships, the desire to rebel and to find an escape in someone. And, although I was kind of disappointed by the ending because I don’t think the author succeeded at delivering that final punch, the book did make me reminisce about my own past friendships. The narrative voice that the author created felt very honest and true to life and I think it’s true that there are some significant friendships, even very brief ones, that stay with you and you can never totally get over, even though you don’t actually miss the person, but rather that version of yourself or a certain feeling you had when you were with them, if that makes sense. Anyway, I’m getting off track, but as you can tell I was moved by this book and I look forward to seeing what the author writes next.

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