Marlena by Julie Buntin

Marlena: A Novel BY Julie Buntin. Henry Holt and Co.. Hardcover, 288 pages. $26.
The cover of Marlena: A Novel

“Sometimes I wonder how I’d tell this if I didn’t have so many books rattling around inside me,” says Cat, the narrator of Julie Buntin’s riveting, assured debut novel Marlena. For Cat, a librarian and avid reader, storytelling is crucial, and she struggles to recount a tragedy from “a period of [her] life so brief, it was over almost as soon as it started.” Within the first few pages of the novel we learn that Cat’s best friend Marlena died, “suffocat[ing] in less than six inches of ice-splintered river,” when the girls were teenagers. Cat has never believed that what happened was “pure accident,” and a strange phone call from Marlena’s younger brother Sal sends Cat spiraling back to the months leading up to Marlena’s death. The premise sounds like a classic mystery, and though Marlena is propulsive and gripping, it is anti-climactic by design. Less interested in the circumstances of Marlena’s death, Cat wants to convey the impact that this fundamental friendship had on her life, realizing all the while that she’ll never be able to fully render Marlena, “in all her glorious complexity, all her unknowable Marlena-ness.” The heart of their intense, fleeting connection is multifarious: “It’s between me and her,” Cat says, “what I saw and what she saw and how I see it now and how she has no now. Divide it further—between what I mean and what I say.” This is not a novel of answered questions or clear-cut resolutions—like Cat, Buntin focuses on the way memory obscures and warps, and how the act of storytelling itself may be the closest thing we have to the truth.

In the wake of her parents’ divorce, Cat, her mother, and her older brother move from suburban Detroit to Silver Lake, a Northern Michigan town sharply divided between fancy lakefront properties and cheap prefab homes. Cat struggles with the adjustment: she has been pulled out of her private high school and away from her friends, and she’s slowly coming to terms with the fact that without her father, her family is “full-blown poor.” She’s feeling isolated and shiftless in her new surroundings when she encounters Marlena, the beautiful, troubled seventeen-year-old next door. “Though it was an unremarkable meeting,” Cat recalls, “the start of a familiar story, in the coming months we’d go over and over the details until they took on a mythical radiance.” Their friendship is instant and all-consuming, reckless and, at times, destructive. Cat, formerly an excellent student, begins skipping school with Marlena and her tough friends, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, feeling happy and “thoughtlessly alive” for the first time in her life. Despite their immaturity and messy choices, both girls are deeply endearing; Buntin excels at capturing the longing and intensity of being a teenager, that “great loneliness, profound isolation [and] cataclysmic, overpowering sense of being misunderstood.”

Though they live in houses only a few paces apart, Marlena and Cat have very different families. All of these dangerous changes are new and temporary for Cat—she’s slumming it with Marlena, riding along on drug deals, cutting class—but at the end of the day she returns to her clean house and her well-meaning family, knowing that she’ll eventually move on to better things. Marlena is left to her own devices in her ramshackle house; she’s reluctantly assumed the role of caretaker to her little brother Sal, cooking him macaroni with ketchup and occasionally spiking his milk with Dramamine to get him to sleep. Her dad has a bad temper and cooks meth in an old railcar out in the woods; meanwhile, Marlena has a burgeoning drug problem of her own. She keeps pills inside of a silver, house-shaped pin she wears every day, believing that “the best place to hide something [is] in plain sight.”

In order to protect her friendship with Marlena, Cat learns how to lie, and it turns out she’s quite good at it. “Lies don’t necessarily need to be elegant,” she discovers, “though they do require a magician’s sleight of hand, the ability to draw attention to your fingers when it should be kept on your sleeve, where the cards are disappearing.” The same could be said about devising a narrative, and Buntin’s magic comes through Cat’s conscious storytelling. Marlena is divided into past and present, alternating between Cat’s adult life in New York City and her adolescence in Michigan, but the sections bleed into one another, with Cat frequently interrupting to doubt herself or double back, to admit her omissions or to further explore the distorting power of her memory. “Sometimes I feel like she is my invention,” Cat says of Marlena, “Like the more I say, the further from the truth of her I get.” But the more Cat questions her version of the truth, the more trustworthy—the more real—she seems. Because of its confessional, self-referential tone, Marlena is engrossing in the way the very best literary memoirs are.It’s magical to see someone making sense out of the chaos of their history through carefully chosen words, to see a person so compelled by these events they can’t help but craft their experience into a story. But it’s a trick: like Marlena’s pin full of pills, Buntin’s masterful technique is hidden in plain sight; Cat’s voice is so precise and convincing it’s easy to forget that she too is an invention.

Though Sal’s phone call is the impetus for Cat’s recollection, it doesn’t give anything away to say that when the two of them finally get together to talk about Marlena, their meeting, in the present, doesn’t compare to Cat’s memories.There is no new information about the circumstances of Marlena’s death, no new insight about who she was. This is hardly a disappointment; as Cat has said all along, her “version of the story is all we fucking get.” So how does a writer lay bare the construction of a novel, remove the impact of the so-called climax, offer little-to-no resolution, and still manage to make a powerful and satisfying whole? Buntin does it by stringing gorgeous sentences together, one after another, and by creating characters so nuanced and true-to-life you’d swear you were remembering them yourself. “Tell me a story about us,” Marlena tells Cat. “And make it good…Make us strong.” Cat succeeds marvelously, which is to say that Buntin does.

Kimberly King Parsons is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon.