Our teenage friendships often have such a strong impact on the way we formulate our identities in adulthood. Julie Buntin’s debut novel “Marlena” tells the story of a young woman named Cat reflecting back on one such friendship she formed after moving to a depressed rural Michigan town as a teenager. At that time, her parents separated in a way which inadvertently derailed Cat’s promising academic progress at a private school. Although there would obviously still be opportunities for advancement at her new public high school, Cat turned her back on developing her academic future by befriending her new neighbour Marlena and a group of drug dealers/users who frequently skipped school. The intense bond she formed with Marlena challenged and changed her in ways she didn’t anticipate. Many years later Cat recalls this lost friend and how those formative years led her to question her privilege and position in life.
It feels like this novel expresses a lot of anxiety about class. When Cat’s mother strikes out on her own with Cat and her older brother Jimmy they live in much more reduced circumstances than she’d lived in before. Her mother has to take whatever house cleaning jobs she can find and the family must use food tokens in order to eat. Since Cat was previously at a school largely populated by privileged children there's a simmering resentment about her position. She's also not given much emotional support from her largely absent father or her mother who struggles with alcoholism. These lead her to rebel with her new friend Marlena, yet they seem brought together out of desperation more than genuine friendship. As a teenager she is adrift and so uncertain of her future. In her adulthood she's caught in a crisis where she says “I want to go home, but what I mean, what I’m grasping for, is not a place, it’s a feeling. I want to go back. But back where?” That she can never precisely identify this feeling is hobbling her progress as an adult and leads her to contemplate the real meaning of her teenage years.
It's fascinating the way this novel shows the way memory works – particularly recollections of our teenage years and how frustrating it is to know we retain so little of this crucial time. In the story Cat states: “I learned that time doesn’t belong to you. All you have is what you remember. A fraction; less.” This leads us to fill in the gaps or inflate the meaning of certain events. It also struck me as particularly true how she observes “When you grow up, who you were as a teenager either takes on a mythical importance or it’s completely laughable.” There is the pain of losing the actual person of Marlena, but there is also a way in which Marlena comes to symbolize the person that Cat could have so easily been herself. The fact that she has survived and Marlena didn't seems to be mere chance and this instils a particular kind of guilt in her. It also causes her to question if this life that she's made for herself in NYC far away from her humble origins was worth running towards.
I felt like I could personally relate to this novel a lot as someone who moved from a small town to a major city. It also made me recall people I knew from my teenage years who were more rebellious than I was and the attraction I felt to that energy and sense of coolness. It was especially enjoyable reading this novel as a buddy read with my friend Matthew. We emailed while reading it sharing how we personally connected with the story and he gave such great insight. It was especially helpful how he knew the area of NYC that Cat and her husband live in and how this neighbourhood has a particular dilapidated quality which poignantly reflects Cat's psychological state as an adult. It changes the reading experience in a good way when you have the chance to read a novel alongside someone else so you can reflect on the story and speculate about what you think is happening and will happen while you read along.
This novel reminded me slightly of a couple of other recent novels: “History of Wolves” by Emily Fridlund and “The Girls” by Emma Cline in that they are all about women in adulthood reflecting back to a significant time in their teenage years. These dual narratives all have interestingly different takes on the function of memory and the meaning of friendship. But I especially appreciate how “Marlena” gets at a particular ambiguity of feeling. Cat seems tragically suspended in this state she can't progress from. The novel also poignantly explores how our sexuality develops, as well as issues of self-perception and self-loathing in our teenage years. It meaningfully shows the prevalence of substance abuse – both with alcohol and other forms of drugs (prescription and illegal). This all builds to create a memorable and powerfully original story.