Julie Buntin’s debut novel, Marlena, opens with the narrator, a 15-year-old girl named Cat, hurtling toward Lake Michigan in a car that’s going far too fast. The driver is Marlena, two years older, strikingly beautiful with a “sly, feline face, all cheekbones and blink.” Although she stops the car before it reaches the edge, the metaphor in the scene seals Marlena’s fate. She drowns, Cat reveals after only a few pages, in “less than six inches of ice-splintered river, in the woods on the outskirts of downtown Kewaunee, a place she had no reason to be at twilight in November.” The rest of the book becomes an attempt by an older Cat to exorcize Marlena’s imprint on her own life—to consider the intoxicating thrill of Marlena’s wildness, and whether Cat could have done more to alter her trajectory.
In this, Marlena joins a glut of recent novels that pair a retrospective female narrator with an extravagantly charismatic but troubled friend. Emma Cline’s novel The Girls loosely reimagines the Manson family murders from the perspective of a 14-year-old named Evie in 1969, who becomes besotted with an older teenager named Suzanne. Emily Bitto’s The Strays is recounted by Lily, a young Australian girl drawn into the 1930s bohemian family of her classmate, Eva. Like Zadie Smith’s Swing Time and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, these novels consider the fierce complexity of female friendship, and the particular agony of innocence that yearns to be shed. They examine the allure of danger from a space of safety: It’s inevitable which girl will careen toward catastrophe, and which girl will watch, wistfully, from the sidelines. As James Wood wrote of My Brilliant Friend’s Elena and Lila in The New Yorker, “One girl is facing beyond the book; the other is caught within its pages.”