‘Marlena’: a coming-of-age retrospective wrapped in mystery and nostalgia

You know that scene in “Footloose” where the pastor’s daughter, Ariel, climbs through a window and straddles a moving sedan and pickup truck as they’re driving head-on toward a tractor trailer?

With age and perspective, you watch this scene with paralyzing fear — fearing that you’re about to watch a tragic car crash you can’t prevent. But when you’re young and living these moment, your friends cloak you with a coat of invincibility. As long as you’re with them, you feel like you can fly.

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“Marlena”
By Julie Buntin.
274 pp. Henry Holt and Company. $26.
2017.

Julie Buntin’s debut novel “Marlena” oscillates between youth and adulthood, wrapping mystery with nostalgia.

Ariel is how I imagine Marlena Joyner — the beautiful, wild and effervescent center of this novel.

Unlike Ariel though, Marlena doesn’t miraculously avoid collision. She dies tragically young before the novel even begins. Years later, Marlena’s ghost still haunts the thoughts of her best childhood friend, Cat.

Cat is twice the age that Marlena ever got to be. But even as she nears 36, Cat vividly remembers how it felt like to be 15 and to befriend her next-door neighbor Marlena — “to the first time I heard Stevie Nicks, to watching the snow fall outside the window with a paperback folded open in my lap, to the moment before I tasted alcohol, to virginity and not really knowing that things die, back to believing that something great is still up ahead, back to before I made the choices that would hem me to the life I live now.”

Each chapter pivots between Cat’s current life in New York City and her former life in Silver Lake, Michigan, a small dead-end town mostly populated by tourists in the summer. Her memories takes her back to the year when Marlena was still alive, the year when her mom had just divorced her dad and moved Jimmy and her to a town in the middle of nowhere northern Michigan — the kind of place where “there aren’t words for the catastrophic dreariness.”

The only light was Marlena, who was both danger and exhilaration — dangling the keys of friendship and peer pressure in the form of booze, pills and cigarettes. Cat was addicted to how friendship made her feel while “pretending to be girls with minor secrets, listening to Joni Mitchell with the volume turned up.”

Written in first person, “Marlena” seems like a cautionary tale, but it’s not a book about not living. It’s a book about remembering — remembering how the people in your life shaped how you are today.

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