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Marlena by Julie Buntin
Literary fiction


We love supporting debut authors. Congrats, Julie Buntin, on your first book!
Early Release
This is an early release that's only available to our members—the rest of the world has to wait 'til next month to read it.

by Julie Buntin

Quick take

Buntin taps into something authentic, a core nugget so true that it feels like, in reading this novel, Marlena happened to me.

Why I love it

Steph Opitz
BOTM Judge

There is something compelling about certain teenage female friendships. The intensity that can rival a great romance. The desperate loyalty, the inexplicable need to pour your every secret into your friend vessel. The mutual adoration that’s near-sexual. Perhaps because, beyond 'œboyfriend' or 'œgirlfriend,' the nebulous shape of a best friendship requires more guarding and defending and is therefore more sacred. I don’t know. But I've had relationships like this, and so have most women I know. And Julie Buntin, in her raw debut novel, nails it.

Like any good novel, the stakes seem higher in Marlena. In this friendship, Cat, age 15, is recently plucked from her home and moved to a trailer park in northern Michigan as a result of her parents’ messy divorce. Her innocence, or maybe just naivety, are the yin to her new neighbor Marlena’s wild and worldly yang. Just two years older, but motherless and saddled with a meth-making father, Marlena has been exposed to much more of the darker sides of life.

Marlena is that kid you don't want your own kid playing with. Yet Cat’s aloof mother is too self-involved to notice or care. Without adult supervision, the girls’ friendship flourishes over the course of a rowdy year as they begin to skip school and get into'¦ pretty much exactly what you’d imagine they’d get into'“sex, drugs, booze, mischief, etc. While this freedom is new and thrilling to Cat, it’s more of the same, and then dangerously worse, for Marlena.

The book is framed as Cat, now an adult living in New York and struggling as a functioning alcoholic, is still forever remembering and reliving her youth, reeling from Marlena’s untimely death. In recounting her year of friendship with Marlena, Cat’s battle scars show, and she lays bare the emotional journey that was both the high-point, and low-point of her life.

The intimacy of the friendship, and the intimacy of the novel, jogged memories of my high school girlfriends. And, while I’ll definitely pass this book on to them (because really, it’s so excellent) I will also give them a warning that the story hits close to home: we too lost the wild, intoxicating friend in our group during our senior year (a girl very much like Marlena). It was painful in many of the ways that Cat feels, and in many ways that Cat could never feel. Buntin taps into something authentic, a core nugget so true that it feels like, in reading this novel, Marlena happened to me. Her loss became a loss in my life. And, even if this story is foreign to your own life experiences, it’s so deeply felt that it will, nonetheless, be worth the emotional ride.

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2566 ratings
  • 32% Love
  • 50% Like
  • 14% Dislike
  • Harrisonburg, VA

    I wasn't sure about this book at first...but after a little while I found myself really caring for the characters. The book somehow beautifully captures the intensity of what it means to grow up poor.

  • Highlands Ranch, CO

    At first I felt as if this book was slow moving, but as soon as the pace picked up I couldn't put it down. I wanted to know much more about Marlena and her mysterious and oftentimes, sad, short life.

  • McPherson, KS

    Loved it, loved the flashback/real time story telling of this book. Makes me wonder how many teens lead this life (sure it is more than what people think). Great read-in-a-lawn-chair-in-the-yard book!

  • Lansing, MI

    Being a Michigan girl, I was skeptical of how the girls would be portrayed in this story. I felt that Buntin got it just right - the feeling of both hating and loving it while wishing to be elsewhere.

  • Washington DC, DC

    A heartbreaking peek into the world of American poverty, drug abuse, and unstructured adolescence. Buntin will grab you within the first few pages and won't let your heart or mind rest until the end.

  • San Angelo, TX

    Heartbreaking & uplifting. So much character depth, and filled with nostalgia of being young and still able to get away with wild. Marlena feels like a friend, the memories honest, shameful, and real.

  • West Columbia, SC

    This is one of the best books I've read recently. From the first page to the last, it draws you in and begs you not to put it down. I think we can all relate to some aspect of Cat and Marlena's lives.

  • Nashville, NC

    After learning of the friendship between two young girls and how that friendship affected one's life for the rest of her life, this book speaks to me. Love, loss, soulmates, memories, and remembrance.

  • Denver, CO

    I loved the nostalgia of this book, it was beautifully done, living in both the present and the past. The individual and different strengths of each girl was done so well, I really enjoyed this book!

  • Fort Worth, TX

    Immediately after reading, gave this book 4 stars. Then I couldn't stop thinking about it. Couldn't sleep! Realized it was affecting me exactly the way it was intended. Thus it became a 5 star book...

  • Hendersonville , TN

    "Marlena" was my first book choice as a new member of the Book of The Month Club. I absolutely loved it & was very happy with my choice. I was drawn into the story right away. Enjoyed the characters.

  • lexington, KY

    This one ripped my heart out! You know this girl will die from the very beginning but oh how you don't want her to! Marlena is sadly wise beyond her years. You want to fix her. A coming of age story.

  • Charlotte, NC

    This book was one of those books that just reaches in and grabs you. I was hooked from the very beginning. I could relate to both Cat and Marlena as teenage girls. They felt real. Absolutely loved it

  • Little Falls, NY

    Thinking back to the innocence and often stupidity of those teenage years, I found myself knowing and understanding the twists and dips and turns of this tale. I was totally engrossed till the end.

  • Nashville , TN

    This read was such an interesting reflection of one's own childhood friendships. I was so enthralled by the characters & how our lives are truly paved by the people we have in them. Beautiful book.

  • Chicago, IL

    I can't stop thinking about this book. It was interesting how although the reader knew the ending from the start, the beautiful relationship between the characters made you forget the brutal ending.

  • Bethlehem, PA

    Marlena is simply a masterpiece. After picking up this book, and not being able to put it down, I found myself adoring the protagonist. I could feel her around me and I loved who she tragically was.

  • Shawnee, KS

    I loved the narrator's voice, showing the impact a teenage friendship can have both in youth and as an adult. I could easily relate to the narrator's voice and it was a very thought-provoking story.

  • Mt shasta , CA

    A modern day Greek tragedy of the curse of nostalgia. A sad tale of a friendship lace with drugs, poverty, loneliness, but also a deep connection that can only be born from such things. A must read!

  • Chicago, IL

    I loved this book for its characters, and I despised it for the race of the plot toward the inevitable. Beautiful, tragic, illuminating--this book amplifies strong female friendships in adolescence.

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