Julie Buntin’s debut novel, “Marlena,’’ is a thrilling and important examination of female adolescent friendship. This is a subject that has been treated recently in books like Emma Cline’s “The Girls’’ and Robin Wasserman’s “Girls on Fire,’’ both of which include the same archetypal characters: the troubled older teenager, the naïve younger girl who worships her.
But while these books seem also to be “about” the time period in which they’re set — “The Girls’’ takes place in the Manson-era 1960s, “Girls on Fire’’ in the Cobain-era 1990s — “Marlena’’ feels timeless, its vivid characters suspended in the difficult moment of awakening just before adulthood. It is a gem of a book, brief and urgent, nearly perfect in its execution.
Our narrator is intelligent, insecure, 15-year-old Cat, who is foundering following her transformation from scholarship student at a boarding school to largely truant public school student after her parents’ divorce. Cat’s mother has made the impulsive decision to move her kids from “the thumb of Michigan” to Silver Lake, a remote, vacation town at “the top of the state’s ring finger.” The family struggles financially: Cat’s mother barely scrapes by cleaning houses, and her brother gets a job in a factory.
Upon her arrival in Silver Lake, Cat meets her neighbor, the beautiful, fascinating Marlena, whose abusive single father cooks meth in a railcar in the woods. Cat is enthralled by her. Throughout the book, Cat describes Marlena’s looks lovingly, prompting the reader to recall the exacting eye that teenagers have for beauty: “Marlena lifted her hair off her neck and twisted it into a damp rope . . . She was alarmingly pretty — sly, feline face, all cheekbone and blink — and if I am honest, that was the first reason I wanted to become friends.” Promptly, the girls do.
The poor decisions made by Cat’s parents seem to have given her the idea that the things she thought mattered — school, grades, getting into college — actually don’t. With Marlena as her guide, Cat engages in riskier and riskier behavior.
Buntin’s prose is elaborately descriptive, sometimes invoking physical sensations in the reader. Cat’s anxiety and resignation as she ventures farther and farther from comfort is particularly well rendered. One day, Marlena speeds a car toward Lake Michigan and Cat, sitting in the passenger seat, thinks: “She’s not going to stop, and for a second I feel something foreign, a rage that’s equal parts hunger and fear. Do it, I think, do it, and my stomach’s in my throat but I’m so tired of being the one to say no, be careful, stop.”
While Cat experiments with danger, Marlena is mastering it. The book is primarily set at the turn of the millennium when meth was the rural narcotic of choice, but opioids were already beginning their insidious takeover. It is to the latter that Marlena becomes painfully addicted. In its descriptions of Marlena’s use, the novel is a haunting snapshot of the origins of a plague: “[Marlena] didn’t share Oxys with me or anyone. Pills were okay because they originated with a doctor, and they weren’t meth, which would kill you.”
We know from the start that Marlena will die. Buntin tells us this on the fourth page of her novel. This early revelation is a daring authorial move that, in lesser hands, would knock the tension out of the narrative. But when Marlena finally meets her end, it feels neither inevitable or muted: Instead, the loss of this young, bright life strikes readers as both surprising and tragic. Despite everything we know in advance, we still harbored the sense that her death could have been avoided.
So does the adult Cat, whose present-day story is told in short chapters that intermittently lift us out of the Upper Peninsula and into New York City. Still mourning the loss of Marlena, she now battles functional alcoholism, which seems like a punishment for surviving.
It might seem improbable that such a brief friendship would have such a profound effect, but Buntin does a deft job of convincing us. Cat’s guilt emerges from her eventual realization that — despite the hardships Cat faced as a child, despite Marlena’s looks and confidence — it was Marlena, all along, who never got a fair chance.
For, as Buntin heartbreakingly illustrates in the elegiac “Marlena,’’ there is a firm line that exists between children who are loved and cared for — even by a parent who makes mistakes — and children who are not.
By Julie Buntin
Henry Holt, 274 pp., $26Liz Moore is the author of three novels, including 2016’s “The Unseen World.’’