Marlena by Julie Buntin
My Rating: 3 / 5 stars
Average Goodreads Rating: 4.2 / 5 stars
Suddenly it seems stories of dangerous female friendships are popping up everywhere. Last year Emma Cline’s novel The Girls was all the buzz. Marlena follows suit, telling a very similar story of two young girls and the destructive decisions they make. This is a coming of age story, but not the feel good type. It’s the type that will keep you up at night, wondering what your teenage daughter does when you aren’t around.
In this story we meet our protagonist Cat, the tradional “good girl” of the two, and Marlena, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Marlena opens Cat’s world up to a life of danger, filled with partying, drinking, drugs, and sex. Cat starts off timid but by the end of the novel she is barely recognizable and is just as dangerous as Marlena.
This is a hard one for me to review. I was definitely intrigued. I devoured about 150 pages of this book in one sitting. However, the content made me so uncomfortable at times. The drinking and the drugs I can handle. What makes me uncomfortable with these kinds of books is the sexual nature of the stories. There are quite a few scenes of casual sex in this story, and it always seems joyless for the girls. Sex is treated like a transaction throughout; the girls use sex to get drugs and to get attention. I feel like the depiction of loveless, almost sad and off putting sex has become extremely trendy in adult literature. When it happens in a book about a loveless marriage I can handle it, but when it involves young girls I find its less easy to stomach.
Another issue I had with this book was the pacing. The first 50 pages are significantly slower than the rest of the book. Once Cat is officially friends with Marlena the pacing picks up. The early chapters however, read like a string of hazy, half-formed memories with no true plot. I worry this book will lose readers early on because it does take awhile to sink its teeth into you.
The writing is another thing I had back and forth feelings on. At times the writing was beautiful. Buntin is clearly a skilled writer. Other times the writing started to feel too “purple” for my taste. There were times when I felt the author got lost in the dreamy imagery rather than using her writing to propel the story forward.
My last issue with the book was the past and present timeline the book uses. I personally felt the “New York” chapters were totally unnecessary. In my opinion they didn’t add much to the story and they slowed the plot down a lot. I understand that Buntin wants us to see the lasting effects this friendship had on Cat but they were definitely the weaker chapters.
Finally, the thing I found most successful about this novel was Buntin’s ability to humanize Marlena. In most of these “good girl meets bad girl” stories the bad girl reads as a mythological creature, worshiped and idolized by the good girl. Cat definitely looks up to Marlena, and at times even crosses into hero-worship territory, but she also sees Marlena’s flaws. Sometimes she chooses to turn a blind eye to those flaws but she always acknowledges they exist. Because of this, I found their relationship to read more as equals than many of similar books. As you read, you can tell Marlena does truly love Cat in return. They also seem to share the guilt in their misdeeds, rather than the narrator ultimately letting Marlena take the fall. I found this much more realistic than other female frienships/relationships I’ve seen depicted in similar novels.
I think this book is definitely worth the read. Just be prepared to squirm at times.