marlena review

Marlena: A Good Book That Made Me Feel Icky (And Conflicted)

I knew Marlena by Julia Buntin was going to make me feel uncomfortable when I read it. I knew it was going to be about drugs, alcohol, and poor life decisions made by young girls. Books like that are tough for me to read. Maybe because I was once a young girl who had to battle these decisions? I don’t know, but ultimately this book left me feeling very confused about whether or not I actually liked it. I mean, I guess I know I liked it, but I didn’t enjoy reading it. Does that make sense? Ultimately books like this are really hard to rate.

Marlena: A Good Book That Made Me Feel Icky (And Conflicted)Marlena by Julie Buntin
Published by Henry Holt and Co. on April 4th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 288
Format: Hardback
Source: Henry Holt and Co.
Buy on Amazon, Buy on Barnes & Noble, Buy from The Book Depository

An electric debut novel about love, addiction, and loss; the story of two girls and the feral year that will cost one her life, and define the other’s for decades

Everything about fifteen-year-old Cat’s new town in rural Michigan is lonely and off-kilter, until she meets her neighbor, the manic, beautiful, pill-popping Marlena. Cat, inexperienced and desperate for connection, is quickly lured into Marlena’s orbit by little more than an arched eyebrow and a shake of white-blond hair. As the two girls turn the untamed landscape of their desolate small town into a kind of playground, Cat catalogues a litany of firsts—first drink, first cigarette, first kiss—while Marlena’s habits harden and calcify. Within the year, Marlena is dead, drowned in six inches of icy water in the woods nearby. Now, decades later, when a ghost from that pivotal year surfaces unexpectedly, Cat must try to forgive herself and move on, even as the memory of Marlena keeps her tangled in the past. Alive with an urgent, unshakable tenderness, Julie Buntin’s Marlena is an unforgettable look at the people who shape us beyond reason and the ways it might be possible to pull oneself back from the brink.

I received this book for free from Henry Holt and Co. in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

What I know I liked: 

1. Buntin did an amazing job describing the motives and thought-processes behind what these girls did. It was so perfectly done it was almost not noticeable. I never thought, “Oh that would never happen,” because it all totally could  happen. I could see fifteen-year-old me feeling the same way about high school peer pressure.

2. Buntin’s writing was perfection. Again, it was so good I almost didn’t even notice it. Her writing flows seamlessly and her descriptions were all simple and evocative.

“Above us, the sky, a shattered mirror of the lake, and of course, the stars—as distant and unknowable as every single person I’d ever met, even myself.”

What I didn’t like (this is where it gets confusing):

These things I didn’t like were mostly the awful parts of the story itself. So I really think that it means that they were pretty well done. I mean, it’s not like Buntin wants us to love reading about girls flushing their lives down a toilet, right?

1. I hated our main character’s (Cat) relationship with Marlena. It was toxic and Marlena dragged Cat down. I hated how obsessed Cat was with Marlena and I hated how much Marlena took advantage of that.

2. I hated Marlena. I felt sorry for her, absolutely, but she made awful decisions and I can’t excuse them. And I can’t excuse her for the terrible peer pressure she placed on Cat (not like Cat is blameless by any stretch, she has to take responsibility for her life decisions, too!).

Ultimately, I liked this story quite a bit, and I read it really fast. I wanted to see what happened with Cat and how she pulled herself out of the shit-hole life she dug for herself, BUT the entire book made me cringe… so I was left feeling really confused. 3.5 stars, I guess?

Have you read books that made you feel uncomfortable (and ultimately conflicted about how much you liked it)?


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  1. I get what you mean about feeling conflicted at the end. That happens to me especially with books that tackle sensitive or heavy themes at times. I like how realistic this books sounds and the fact that you described the writing as perfection has definitely piqued my interest. Fab review.

    1. Thanks Diana! I’m glad I’m not alone in feeling conflicted. Sometimes tough subjects are just really hard to read, and honestly they’re not my favorite. I like to escape to happier or more fictional places when I read! XD

  2. Reading about toxic relationship makes me uncomfortable as well, but it’s also something that fascinates me. It’s something that I feel like I need to know about going in (that the relationship is toxic, that the characters are unlikeable, etc.), and after knowing that it’s something that I can read (possibly enjoy, as much as you can about a book with a toxic relationship).
    Monica just posted What I’m Currently Reading (+ #TheReadingQuest Update) | August 2017My Profile

    1. I think that’s probably a good point – maybe if I knew exactly what-kind-of-terrible the people would be (I mean, I knew it was going to be one of those types of books prior to reading it), it would have helped. Maybe I’ll scout out spoilers for my next toxic relationship read XD

  3. Definitely. Sweetland by Michael Crummey comes to mind. It is BEAUTIFULLY written, but super depressing and somehow felt like a really hard read…. I gave it 3 stars but also felt like maybe I liked it more than that? But I could never read it again. It was so depressing. But I can appreciate why some people gave it 5 stars.

    1. It’s so hard to rate books that make us feel awful!! It’s like, wellllll clearly it did what it was supposed to, but I can’t say that I love it???