“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.
She narrates their friendship to make sense of who she became. Other relationships would have fizzled, but this one has become indelible. By verbalizing their past, Cat makes it an external reality, one which she can maybe move on from. After all, how could Cat fully grow up when the person she modeled herself after never will, and when that person would never have fit into the life Cat inhabits as an adult––one of $14 martinis, of $300 handbags, of $500 bracelets?
Young Cat mimics Marlena in everything from fashion to body movements, and her life descends quickly to a level she wasn’t aware existed before. “My life was one thing,” she tells Marlena, “and now it’s really different.” Marlena responds: “Like when you get a replacement puppy after your old one gets hit by a car.” Cat: “Yeah, and the replacement has no legs.” Marlena: “And instead of puppy dog eyes it has, like, pieces of coal.” Her new reality is one in which she’s warned to wear shoes on the beach “because of the needles.”
In Silver Springs, money is hard to come by. The most responsible adult in Cat’s life is her eighteen-year-old brother, Jimmy, who gives up a Michigan State scholarship to work night shifts at a plastics factory making $12/hour. The remote, isolated landscape and its long winter are partially at fault for the extreme boredom of the kids, as are the teens’ parents—most of them gone or very checked out of their kids’ lives, only a source of further problems.
Cat, Marlena, and Jimmy are trying to grow up while also having to look after their broken and/or addicted parents. They clean up after them, make sure they have sheets on their beds. They soothe them when they’re high. They take on the role of feeding, clothing, and entertaining their siblings. It’s an atmosphere of all-around neglect; one without adults—not even teachers—watching out.
Drugs and alcohol are readily available, and men are a constant source of sexual threat, of disappointment. Cat experiences constantly oscillating self-confidence and a distorted picture of her physicality as she lives through a string of firsts. These range from the expected explorations of a young teen—new foods (in Cat’s case: almonds), cigarettes, music, kissing, nascent sexuality—to the more sinister—heavy drinking and smoking, pot, ecstasy, Vicodin, unprotected sex, persistent truancy. Meth, though prevalent, isn’t Marlena’s drug of choice (it’s “for rednecks,” she says). She sticks to pills––Oxycontin, mostly. Cat stays away from both. Cat’s mother is there, and is an active presence for her daughter. Cat has also experienced a reality different from the one she later shares with Marlena. Before moving, she went to an elite private high school for a year. Before moving, she spent much of her life feeling safe.
Marlena, and Silver Springs, initiate Cat into a darker understanding of reality: people are very often unsafe, neglected, treated hatefully. Rising from that kind of bottom is nearly impossible, though Cat has ostensibly done so. Internally, though, she hasn’t gone very far. She’s afraid to heal because that will mean finally letting go of Marlena, though Marlena has already gone. What Cat must let go of is the habit of remembering.
Stories are easily reduced to statistics, but statistics don’t, on their own, reveal individual experience. Marlena does. It takes a topic most of us have encountered as a number or set of numbers describing the legions of Americans addicted to pills, the people who live in places that feel like nowhere, and draws us into it through Cat and Marlena. It reveals the ease of getting stuck, the impossibility of getting out. It must have been tempting for Buntin to write her character out of pain, but she resisted, and gave us something more meaningful than a happy ending: that there can be life beyond grief and addiction—through story.