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.”
But Marlena, unlike the others, seems to be aware of the complicity of these kinds of stories in perpetuating the mystique of girls who go wrong. Cat considers women like Edie Sedgwick, Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin, Sylvia Plath. “And wasn’t that the ultimate feminine achievement,” she thinks, “to be too gorgeous, too fucked up, too talented and sad and vulnerable to survive?” Seeking out avatars of Marlena as an adult, she finds her in movies and books, in “Ruth and Sylvie in a rowboat, Dorothea at the breakfast table, Anna K. of course, right before she jumps.” This longstanding romanticization of troubled women prompts a question: Are we as readers, vicariously breaking bad alongside Marlena and Suzanne and Eva, also partly colluding in these seductive anthems to doomed female youth?
If Marlena carries within it a more potent sense of regret, it’s because it’s inspired by a real friendship and a real loss. In 2014, Buntin published an essay in The Atlantic titled “She’s Still Dying on Facebook,” in which she remembered her teenage friend Lea, who died of liver failure at age 22 after lapsing into addiction, but whose presence still materializes on social media.
Lea was the kind of person you join Facebook to stalk. At 16, I was in love with her in a not-entirely platonic way, which every woman who has been the sidekick in a teenage girl-duo will completely understand. And, like a true sidekick, I didn’t question our bad choices—I followed Lea whole hog, in the spirit of best-friendship, of adventure. But part of me anticipated the person who writes this now, by which I mean that even as we chased a night of cocaine with Xanax and Lifetime movies, I already knew that this was the stuff of my wayward youth, and that I’d outgrow it. We promised to be friends forever, but then I went away to college in New York City and she moved to Costa Rica with her boyfriend of the moment. After that, I watched her downward spiral from afar—or more precisely, from close-up, only separated by a computer screen.
Marlena, then, is the story of Lea, fictionalized. Cat first encounters Marlena while moving into a modular home on a “grubby half acre of land in Silver Lake,” Michigan, with her newly divorced mother and her older brother, Jimmy. Like The Girls’s Evie, Cat is dealing with teenage angst: Her father has traded in his wife for a younger woman, and Cat’s subsequent existence is defined by boredom and disappointment in Silver Lake, which is “just a gas station, a trout fishery, a church, and a sex shop.” Marlena appears out of nowhere while Cat and Jimmy are unpacking the U-Haul; she lives less than twenty paces away in a dilapidated barn with her little brother and their father, who, it’s eventually revealed, cooks methamphetamine in the woods.
Cat falls hard and fast for Marlena, whose life predominantly features drugs and neglect. Marlena eschews meth, having seen what it’s done to her father and his friends, but her boyfriend cooks it in a run-down motel, while Marlena, Cat realizes, is propped up by a smorgasbord of prescription pills, primarily Oxycontin. For Cat, meanwhile, being exposed to Marlena and her rebellious lifestyle becomes its own kind of drug. “When I did something that made me nervous,” Cat recalls, “I was rewarded with a shock of adrenaline that obliterated my self-consciousness and fixed me to the moment.” Later, she catches herself smiling broadly at the “giddy pleasure” of going off the rails.
But almost more exhilarating is Marlena herself, and the acute rush of their relationship. “In no more than a matter of weeks, she was my best friend,” Cat explains. “I was the first person, she told me, whose brain moved as quickly as hers, who got the weird things she said, her jokes, her vile, made-up swears, and could sharpen them with my own.” The chemical reaction of the two girls together seems to initiate a whole that’s greater than its elements. So it is for The Girls’s Evie, after being welcomed onto the ranch where Suzanne and other teenagers live with Russell, their enigmatic and manipulative leader. Though most of the girls are enthralled with him, Evie finds a different target for her obsession. “Since I’d met Suzanne,” Evie thinks, “my life had come into sharp, mysterious relief, revealing a world beyond the known world, the hidden passage behind the bookcase.”
Suzanne, like Marlena, is a rare and vivid flower tinged with rot. At first glance, the ranch appears to Evie like a trippy pastoral idyll, “an orphanage for raunchy children,” with its llamas and DayGlo symbols and glamorously disheveled drop-outs. But Cline emphasizes its defining quality of decay: dirty feet, strange smells, Russell’s filthy bedspread. In The Strays, too, young Lily is enthralled by the family of Evan and Helena Trentham, two avant-garde artists and their extended circle, but she’s aware even as a child of an underlying sense of menace. Looking at a book of works by Hieronymus Bosch, she recalls how it “gave me the same rotten feeling in my stomach as Evan’s paintings.” Evan and Helena’s three daughters are neglected and regularly exposed to the more decadent recreational activities of the adults.
But Lily is inexorably drawn to Eva, the middle child, and their “shared sense of imagination” sparks a friendship that, for Lily, becomes a fixation. “Chaste and yet fiercely physical, Eva and I were draped constantly about each other’s bodies,” Lily remembers. For Evie in The Girls, Suzanne shapes her sense of self: “No one had ever looked at me before Suzanne, not really, so she had become my definition.” In adulthood, Marlena’s Cat describes her thought process when she meets women who might become her friend, and her awareness of the other girls who have altered them. “I begin to see the outline of the best friend,” she explains, “the girl she shaped herself around, according to. For so many women, the process of becoming requires two. It’s not hard to make out the marks the other person left.”
All three books explore the teenage ferocity of female friendship—the intense rush of identifying a kindred soul, followed by an all-consuming passion that’s tainted, as fanaticism often is, with jealousy and suspicion. “I could not damp the hot envy that tinged my love for Eva with a desire to see her fail in some small way,” Lily recalls. “To want what she had.” Marlena, accusatory, tells Cat that she’s “like a jinx, like you want me to fuck up.” For these girls, the lesser power of a friend who defines them is that their dark shadows help the narrators, simply by functioning, shine brighter in contrast.
But when does friendship cross the line into exploitation? “I knew this hero-worship phase of yours was only temporary,” Marlena tells Cat, late in their friendship. Adult Cat is still cognizant that she might bear some of the blame for Marlena’s death, and she drinks to excess herself, with Buntin vividly capturing the slow, blurry creep of intoxication. Cat is aware, too, that her description of Marlena glamorizes both Marlena and her descent, which in reality was sordid. She corrects herself, thinking, “Why do I keep doing this? Making her out to be more than she was, grander, omniscient even, lovely and unreal. She could be such a bitch. She could sense what you hated about yourself, and if you pissed her off she’d throw it back at your face … Sometimes I feel like she is my invention.”
The value of novels like Marlena and The Girls and The Strays is how insightfully they capture the complex intensity of girlhood that can’t see yet how exquisitely vulnerable it is. All three protagonists are seduced by danger, and the thrill of a girl who is confidently bad, and whose badness represents a new kind of awakening and freedom. But all three, too, know deep down that they’re safe from the worst excesses that threaten their friends. They’re tourists in rebellion. But they maintain something like survivor’s guilt for escaping unscathed. These are, essentially, bildungsromans where one young woman comes of age, but at a profound cost to another.
“There are times when I try to guess what part I might have played,” Evie thinks in adulthood, after Suzanne’s participation in a heinous crime has been revealed—an event that Evie is almost involved in, until Suzanne throws her out of the car. “What amount would belong to me. It’s easiest to think I wouldn’t have done anything, like I would have stopped them, my presence the mooring that kept Suzanne in the human realm. That was the wish, the cogent parable. But there was another possibility that slouched along … Maybe I would have done something too. Maybe it would have been easy.” The privilege of being the narrator of this kind of story, though, is that she never comes close enough to disaster to find out.