30 January 2020

Marlena by Julie Buntin

Meg and I won this book almost two years ago and I'm just getting around to reading my copy now... I had never heard of Marlena or Julie Buntin, but I remember seeing a lot of celebrities (Jenny Slate) posting photos of the book. It was selected as a Belletrist pick (an online book club run by actress Emma Roberts and her friend Kara Preiss) and this is how we won our copies. It was an easy race ... all we had to do was submit a selfie of the two of us (we have plenty) and tag each other in the post. This "win" did cost me duty from U.S. shipping though... still pissed about that.

Marlena is a fairly quick read at only 288 pages and is told from the perspective of Catherine. The story is split between present-day New York and Michigan ~15 years ago. The book spends the majority of its time in Michigan, detailing the relationship between Cat and hew new friend Marlena. These early years are filled with skipping class, smoking cigarettes, and getting wasted, but Cat starts to notice that it goes deeper for Marlena, who spends almost every waking minute popping various pills - oxys being her go-to.

Immediately Cat lets the reader know that Marlena is dead, and that she was found face down in a shallow puddle in the woods. A drug overdose is expected, but Cat can't help but wonder if it was something more sinister.

There are things I wish weren't part of this story. So far I've made no catalogue of what she swallowed that day at school, what she inhaled [...] I left out the fact that after her meeting with Cher, Marlena took another Oxy and fell asleep in the crawl space under the auditorium stage for three hours, high enough to remain unconscious throughout the whole of jazz band rehearsal."

the infamous photo that won us the books.... 
I really didn't know what to expect going into this book. I have to think Emma Roberts has good taste in books because she is also obsessed with Joan Didion, but another part of me knows that I am the bigger Joan Didion fan... and that I have tracked down all of her books (with even my parents looking at used book stores in Maine and beyond) without being filthy rich. SO part of me respects her taste less because of this (lol). BUT, Jonathan Safran Foer (who I also love) also stamped his approval on the back of the book.

I was weirdly haunted by Buntin's opening line: "Tell me what you can't forget, and I'll tell you who you are." I found this to be really powerful in its simplicity... I also hope it isn't true. It definitely made me start the book off already feeling a little shaken, and interested in how Buntin was going to tackle memory.

When you grow up, who you were as a teenager either takes on a mythical importance or it's completely laughable. I wanted to be the kind of person who wiped those years away; instead, I feared, they defined me."

I would say some of my favourite stuff in this book was about whether or not we can trust the narrator. The few pages that are set in New York show us how deeply Cat is struggling with the memories of her childhood. It's painfully clear that she has developed a drinking problem and she seems to just float emotionless through her adult life. It's clear from the very start that Cat is obsessed with these events from her childhood and that she suffers from depression and survivor's guilt. You can feel how badly she wishes the narrative was different, or that she could change the ending.

Julie Buntin
You start to wonder pretty early on if Cat is leaving things out of the story. A lot of her childhood memories aren't just about Marlena. She also covers her parent's separation, and her move to northern Michigan with her mother and brother. Cat's brother gives up his scholarship to university to help support them by working long hours at a manufacturing company. Eventually her family starts to rely on food stamps. One of the first time she "blurs" the truth is when she recounts a memory she had when her parents were still together:

I told you the good things. It was the first best day of a life I thought I wanted, and for just a moment, even in the act of looking back - well, to keep it like that I needed to leave parts out. But I don't know why I lied about sneaking, as a child, into the living room, and seeing Mom and Dad on the couch. A few times I crept down there after they put me to bed, to steal a snack and read, as I said, or watch more TV. But not once did I find them together. That part was my invention, I will admit it now, but they must have had moments like that, even if I wasn't there to see them. And doesn't that mean both versions can be true?"

Cat also spends a lot of her time in libraries. Both growing up (when she would skip school) and as an adult (her career). You can tell Buntin is a passionate reader, as Cat is constantly referring to plots in famous novels but without naming them directly. Another reference to unreliable storytelling is in the following short phrase: "Sometimes I wonder how I'd tell this if I didn't have so many books rattling around inside me." I love that the character acknowledges how we like to mythologize our own stories.

I really liked how Buntin wrote Cat and Marlena's characters. She was very thoughtful and respectful of what it's like to be a teenager. You can tell she's concerned with creating realistic characters, and making sure it never feels like melodrama. I know Riverdale is supposed to be "soapy," but the best way to describe this book would be that it's the dead opposite of Riverdale.

Her sadness, when she let it show, usually struck me as wise and ancient, the sadness of an oracle, not hysterical and self-pitying and teenage, the way mine could be."

I would honestly recommend this book to pretty much anyone. I liked that it wasn't completely devoted to a fifteen-year-old character, but the writing during that time frame was probably the most compelling. I am always interested in books that set up "the trauma" and then cover its effects later on in the character's life. With Marlena you get a perfect balance of both.

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