*May Contain Spoilers*
Life as a teenager is nearly always rough. A time of self-exploration, a time of mistakes, and sometimes the beginning of something that stays with us forever. Marlena, by Julie Buntin, explores these themes, coupled with addiction, alcoholism, and the haunting nature of memory. As Cat recounts a year of her life with imperfect hindsight, readers are taken down a horrifying, blunt, and, at times, crude memory lane where the end result is always the same: Marlena is dead.
The aspect of Cat's character that struck me as the most important in regard to the story is her unreliable nature. After her parents' divorce and her move to rural Silver Lake, Cat met Marlena and started drinking at the age of fifteen. She openly admits repeatedly throughout the novel that her memory isn't perfect, it's scarred and blurred with drugs and alcohol. At one point, she even admits to omitting things, casting Marlena in an ethereal, angelic light, even though she was a bad influence as well as a suffering young woman. One paragraph hit me in particular, blatantly telling me that Cat as a narrator is not to be trusted:
The truth is both a vast wilderness and the tiniest space you can imagine. It's between me and her, 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, who I am and who I appear to be, who she said she was and acted like she was and also, of course, who she really was... Imagine all these perspectives like circles in a Venn diagram, a tiny period in the middle... Maybe that is the truth. But my version of the story is all we f*cking get (Buntin 231).With this admission, readers see Cat as not only unreliable but self-deprecating. Cat doesn't trust herself, therefore she doesn't inspire much trust from her readers. And yet, we believe her. The story is so intoxicating and absorbing that we ignore her misgivings. We ignore her warnings and try to see the truth behind the inconsistency of her memory. Cat plays to the reader so that we both understand her and Marlena. We see the struggle Cat has with her parent's divorce and how she loses interest in success and all she can think about is escape. I even think we recognize that as a feeling we've experienced. And in this, Marlena becomes a myth-like figure, a warning, an inspiration. Chaotically beautiful in her own destruction. All of this culminates in a pulling, a luring, in of the reader. Fed by the storyline and the prematurely revealed ending that Marlena is dead.
Through these recognizable, understandable, and emotional characteristics of Cat, readers are immediately drawn to her. She's a struggling adult who suffered physically and emotionally as a teenager, though much of it was self-inflicted. However, there are no feelings of blame elicited from the book. I didn't blame Cat's parents, Marlena, or Cat herself, which I found very interesting. Well, maybe I blamed Cat's dad a little bit... but still. The writing style of Buntin leaves room for reader interpretation and I love when a book does that.
The real hook for me in regard to the plot is that Cat has no idea what really happened with Marlena's death. The storyline follows Cat's family moving to Silver Lake, Cat meeting Marlena, the next door neighbor, and then falling down this rabbit hole of destruction that led to Marlena's death. The whole book seems to revolve around a promise Cat made to never forget Marlena and that has haunted her for the past fifteen plus years. Readers truly see how much Marlena's friendship and death affected Cat so that Marlena's memory became her albatross. Marlena is truly a book that haunts, a book that forces a change of perspective, a jaunt down memory lane that scars and blurs the surrounding landscape and especially a book that questions the reliability of memory. I would recommend Marlena to readers who enjoy unsolved mysteries, the exploration of friendship and relationships and those who don't inch away from danger and dirty secrets.
Rating: 3.5/5 Cups