3. “Marlena” of Michigan, AKA the Book that took me back to High School

(I’m trying to read a book from each state this year for my Make America Read Again project. This is my Michigan pick.) 


So remember how last week’s book review was light and frothy? Well. This week’s book for Michigan is the exact opposite. Instead, it’s a story of an intense high school friendship, the lure of addiction, and the spiraling effect of small events in life.  This book swept me back to my own high school years, the (mostly) pre-Facebook and smart phone and economic collapse era, the years of locker room rumors and AP testing and field parties that, despite your best intentions, shape a part of your adulthood in ways you don’t always realize until much later.

Let’s get into it.



The Details:

Published April 2017, out in hardback

Debut novel? Yes

Page Length: 288 

Book Buzz: it’s being compared to other page turners about high school female friendships, like Robin Wasserman’s “Girls on Fire.” 


Do any of you miss high school? I sure don’t, as reading this book last weekend reminded me, though honestly I (mostly) didn’t hate it either. Though I dearly love my friends from those days and am lucky enough to remain close to most of them (thanks, Facebook and iMessage group texts), I wouldn’t trade our adult friendships for the angsty, self-conscious, and at times gossip-ridden relationships of our moody teenage years.



we survived!


What’s it All About?

The title character in Marlena and her best friend (as well as the book’s narrator), Cat, avoided the social drama of their own high school because they were entirely too busy with their own.  Cat has recently moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, rural Silver Lake, with her mom and brother after her parent’s divorce.  Cat is forced to leave her beloved private school friends and well-trimmed house into a not-so-savory area of her new town, in an unfriendly high school, while dealing with the fallout of her parent’s separation and her own mood swings. She has decided she will shed her former identity with her former home – no more of her studious, preppy persona. She deceives her mother (who is busy dealing with her own grief via boxed Franzia) and, instead of attending school for the first few weeks, ditches it to hang out with Marlena and her group of friends.

She tries alcohol for the first time, a formative moment in her life as she battles her dependence on alcohol in her present-day scenes. She has her first major boy crush and wades into the waters of flirtation and dating. Her makeup-free face becomes rimmed with eyeliner and too much blush, her attitude becomes surly, and in general becomes a mostly-insufferable adolescent.  Some of the passages in the book take me back to my own fashion disasters (BLUE EYESHADOW, y’all). I also would cringe while reading the scenes between Marlena and her mom, remembering all those times I snapped back or said hurtful things to her (sorry, Ann Elizabeth! love ya mean it). Most of all, the book takes me back to the time when everything felt so BIG and IMPORTANT, like what type of binder I used at school and whether or not so-and-so talked to me at the football game.



This book is about the memory of Marlena – because, as you’ll find out on the front book jacket (no spoilers I promise!), Marlena dies within the year by drowning…at least that’s what the police believes. We are hearing flashbacks from adult-Cat, an NYC career woman with a fiancé and a dependence on martinis, as she reflects on her fifteen-year-old view of Marlena versus the current, adult perception.

Initially, Cat was so entranced by the seeming exoticism of Marlena’s life that she overlooked the darker, grimier aspects of it.

“The truth is both a vast wilderness and the tiniest space you can imagine. It’s between me and her, what I saw and what she saw and how I see it now and how she has no now. Divide it further—between what I mean and what I say, who I am and who I appear to be, who she said she was and acted like she was and also, of course, who she really was, in all her glorious complexity, all her unknowable Marlena-ness, all her secrets.”

Cat and Marlena’s intense bond stemmed from their mutual (and differing) demons. Like Cat, Marlena’s family was disjointed and dysfuntional – though to a much greater degree. Marlena’s father cooked, sold, and used meth and often left his younger son in the care of his daughter. He rarely stocked the kitchen or kept any money for his family, leaving Marlena to find damaging ways to earn money for their survival, and equally destructive ways to dull the pain. As their next door neighbor, Cat often witnessed the family’s comings and goings, and held a deep fascination with Marlena’s life – as a teenager, Cat found it exotic and adventurous and dangerous in an alluring way. As an adult, Cat realizes how truly horrific Marlena’s life actually was.

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Reuniting for me and Charlie’s wedding in 2013. Photo credit Mark Broadway Photography

My high school and college experience was completely sheltered – it wasn’t until I moved to Boston and started seeing old needles and empty pill bottles littered in parks and subway corners that I began to understand we are living in a time of an addiction epidemic.  That you don’t even need to consume something illegal to get a high – you fake having ADHD for the amphetamines, a toothache or chronic neck pain for your Oxy, and you get your golden ticket to dependence.  As a health care provider myself, this is especially worrying and the book served as an excellent precaution as to how important it is for us to prescribe medications responsibly.

Cat, despite her facade of being street-wise, was just as naive as I was. Despite spending virtually every day with Marlena, Cat didn’t fully understand the repercussions of Marlena’s strict pill schedule – an upper in the morning, a downer after lunch and dinner or whenever things were getting a little too tough – and her backpack version of a pharmacy.  It’s only when looking back, seventeen years after her death, that Cat begins to understand the gravity of Marlena’s life, and blames herself for her passive role in her death. Actually, at the time of Marlena’s death, it was people didn’t understand the dangers of these addictive drugs

“I’ve never believed in the innocent bystander. The act of watching changes what happens. Just because you don’t touch anything doesn’t mean you are exempt. You might be tempted to forgive me for being fifteen, in over my head, for not knowing what to do, for not understanding, yet, the way even the tiniest choices domino, until you’re irretrievably grown up, the person you were always going to be. Or in Marlena’s case, the person you’ll never have a chance to be. The world doesn’t care that you’re just a girl.”

Despite the dark subject matter and age of the main characters, this book doesn’t delve into the schmaltzy or overwrought. The author is fully aware of the ease in which this book could dive into eye-roll inducing angst, but she cleverly avoids it with her chapters in the present day, when adult Cat reflects on the moodiness of her 15-year-old self:


Great loneliness, profound isolation, a cataclysmic, overpowering sense of being misunderstood. When does that kind of deep feeling just stop? Where does it go? At fifteen, the world ended over and over and over again. To be so young is a kind of self-violence. No foresight, an inflated sense of wisdom, and yet you’re still responsible for your mistakes.”

Writing Style


Y’all, the writing in this debut novel is just so beautiful. I couldn’t believe this was Julie Buntin’s first novel. I underlined so many passages while reading it and kept getting hit with wave after wave of high school nostalgia. I felt like I had been transported back into 2003.

It was refreshing, too, to read a book that didn’t have that “Writer’s Workshop” voice that so many of the latest releases seem to have (including the next book that I plan to review)- most of the book had gorgeous passages that didn’t seem overwritten or out of place. There were a few anachronisms in the book though – for example, talking about Facebook even though it hadn’t been invented at the time the novel was set in.

“Sometimes I feel like she is my invention. Like the more I say, the further from the truth of her I get. I’m trying to hold palmfuls of sand but I squeeze harder, I tighten my fist, and the quicker it all escapes.”

I also love how Ms. Buntin parallels the isolation Cat feels in high school with the same isolation felt by the entire town of Silver Lake in northern Michigan – the long, cold winters, the miles of empty roads, and the desperate economic struggles. It gave me a peek into a part of the country I’ve never visited or even really heard much about. The author is from Michigan, so she has an idea of the culture and idiosyncracies that make up this state – which is one of the reasons why I chose it for my project!

Because of the subject matter, this is definitely a darker turn from Crazy Rich Asians from last week – but it’s also the type of novel I prefer. Something to sink my teeth into with a little depth and grit, something that teaches me more about the world around me – and perhaps inspiring me to make it a little bit better.

Highly recommend this book if you want to spend a weekend back in the early 2000’s, and possibly with a tissue in hand.


What books have you been reading this week? Please comment below!





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