The Secret Life: On Julie Buntin’s Marlena

By Sarah Hoenicke for Brooklyn Magazine

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“Everyone has a secret life. But when you’re a girl with a best friend, you think your secret life is something you can share,” says Cat, the young narrator of Julie Buntin’s stirring debut, Marlena. Marlena and Cat think, like most teens, that their friendship is exceptional.

Marlena begins just after Cat’s recently divorced mother relocates their family to a prefab house in Silver Springs, Michigan. Cat’s post-relocation identity is one forged around rebellion. She skips school, gets high in the town church’s basement, swigs her mother’s boxed wine from a plastic water bottle, and observes drugs being made and used.

The catalyst for these changes is Cat’s neighbor, Marlena. She’s a bit older than Cat, but still young enough—seventeen to Cat’s fifteen—that the two quickly become inseparable, as only teenage girls can be. They split a bed, food, a tab of ecstasy. Clothes are passed between them, and they even share a boy, though Marlena doesn’t know about it.

The thing they won’t experience together is a future. We learn early that Marlena, at eighteen, dies alone in the woods, her face in a few inches of water.

The book alternates between teenaged Cat in Michigan, and mid-thirties Cat in New York City. This structure allows young Cat an understanding beyond her age. It shows us the impression left by Marlena on Cat’s older self: She’s an alcoholic, and, though she married a kind man and has a job at which she’s steadily promoted, she’s disconnected from her life. Almost twenty years, and a significant change in class status, stand between the two periods, yet Cat still marks her age by Marlena’s passing birthdays.

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