Julie Buntin’s ‘Marlena’ beautifully tells heartbreaking story of teenage friendship and loss

Megan Hanner

Books come out all the time. Some are better than others. But sometimes, a book comes and tells a story that stays with a reader for a time after turning that last page. Written by debut author Julie Buntin, “Marlena” has been one of the most anticipated novels of 2017, and it does not disappoint.

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“Marlena” is Julie Buntin’s debut novel. Photo credit: Megan Hanner



“Marlena” follows the friendship of Catherine and Marlena, two teenage girls living in Silver Lake, Michigan. After Catherine’s parents divorced, she, along with her mother and brother, moved to Silver Lake. There she met Marlena. What follows is a story of teenage angst, drug use, family issues, abuse and finding friendship in the darkness.

Well into her late 30s, Catherine tells the reader her story of Marlena. Though they were only in one another’s lives for a brief period of time, Marlena’s invaluable friendship had an impact on Catherine, an impact that she still ponders years after Marlena’s tragic death.

“Marlena” is not a light read. At 271 pages, the book seems like it is pretty small, but this does not mean a thing. “Marlena” tackles very deep subject matters that makes it an extremely tough read at times. A reader might need to put the novel down after a chapter to fully absorb what they just read. Tears also might be a part of this reading experience.

However, dark subject matters should not be a reason to avoid this book. “Marlena” addresses issues that are often avoided in the teenage sphere. Drug addiction plagues various characters in this book, and Buntin shines a light on the effects of drugs in a beautifully raw story.

Dark subject matters aside, “Marlena” also addresses the basic issues teenagers face. Questions of sexuality and lack of self confidence are only a few teenage issues explored in “Marlena.” What makes this book unique, however, are Catherine’s experiences and thoughts in which the reader can see through her eyes.

Buntin’s writing is simply fantastic. She writes in a manner that will make a reader stop and reread a sentence over and over just to absorb her prose. Buntin clearly knows how to use words in a deep and impactful way to get her message across. This fact is clear from the very first page.

Perhaps the best thing about “Marlena” are the universal messages it sends. You do not have to be a teenage girl to learn from this book. With all the different struggles it details, “Marlena” can be relatable to anyone.

Should you read it? Yes.  

Though the subject matter can be intense, “Marlena” is definitely worth checking out. Beautifully written and heartbreakingly sincere, any reader from any demographic can learn from this book. Loss is something we all must deal with at some point. “Marlena” shows us how loss can affect our lives and shape who we become. It also teaches the importance of appreciating those we love each day. But the most important lesson it teaches is one that is the hardest to learn: there is hope that can be found though the darkness.

Collegian reporter Megan Hanner can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @meganhanner48.