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FMN Book Club, Living

FMN Book Club | Marlene by Julie Buntin

Life right now is, to put it bluntly, mental.

Work, work, more work and a whole lot of life messiness in between, I’ve barely had time to read a menu let alone a book. So looking back to those halcyon days in July and August when I could lose myself in a book for about 8 hours a day feels very bittersweet right now. Case in point, Marlena by Julie Buntin, which I devoured in Italy back in July and have been waiting to share with guys as part of book club.

It was actually another reader who put this book on my radar (thank you!) and I happened upon it in WH Smith not long after. Typical, cynical me was suspicious of its ‘Girls gone wild’ narrative to start with but pretty quickly, I was totally enthralled and haunted by the story of Cat and Marlene’s whirlwind friendship. Set in rural Michigan, this is a story of poverty, abandonment, addiction, loss and that intoxicating female bond of friendship that’s exclusive to adolescence. I was fearful this would be like a literary version of the film ‘Thirteen’, which don’t get me wrong I loved when it came out, but these days narratives like those can feel fairly soulless. Thankfully, Marlena was anything but and I really felt every inch of Cat’s self-conscious journey from try-hard lost girl to the guiding light of the pair’s doomed friendship.

It’s no secret Marlena, the title friend of the book, dies (it says it on the back of the book). Wrapped up in a circle of neglect, Meth, pills and extortion, her eventual demise isn’t catatonic and dramatic; it’s tragic in it’s quiet and isolation. Isn’t that way it almost always goes? Aside from Cat’s virile, often-absent mother, the majority of the other characters are male which really highlighted Cat and Marlena’s vulnerable femininity amidst the otherwise testosterone-fuelled Michigan community. Aside from the rollercoaster ride of their friendship, a lot of the novel is devoted to the narrator’s (Cat) sense of loss and personal battle with addiction, alcohol in her case. It could easily have ended up feeling melodramatic or wallow-y (yes I know that’s not a word), but Buntin manages to toe the line perfectly and convey rather than describe every feeling of emptiness, guilt and ultimately, redemption.

This was a real surprise hit for me. I started it tentatively and ended up totally wrapped up in it all. Although be warned, it’s one of those books that leaves you feeling very low at the end despite moments of hope and redemption. Not exactly a feel-good read but impactful and introspective none-the-less.


Let me know below how you got on with the book and what else you’ve been reading lately?



  • Ciara

    I started this after watching Louis Theroux’s Dark States – Heroin Town and it felt like he might as well have been describing this Michigan town. Buntin does a great job in creating a place so imbued with hopelessness, so impossible to escape from. The opiate addiction in America is darkly fascinating and I thought that for a work of fiction she did an amazing job of showing how destructive it is and how so few people can get away from it.
    I totally agree with you in being surprised by how much I loved this. I thought it would be like The Girls, a quick, enjoyable whilst reading, but ultimately nothing special read. But I finished this over a month ago and I keep thinking about it. Buntin does an amazing job creating characters so that whilst this is Cat and Marlena’s story I could happily read more on all of the supporting cast. They are all so riddled with their own pain that you can’t help wanting to know more. And yes I loved the contrast of Marlena and Cat to the heavy male characters that surrounded them. Such a smart way of emphasising their vulnerability.

    This was haunting and tragic and beautiful and I really enjoyed it. Looking forward to next month. X

  • I have not had a chance to read a magazine for ages, not to mention a book, but I am adding this one to my list!

  • Emma

    I loved this book, and would even go as far as to name it one of my top reads this year (was I the one that put you onto it? I remember a discussion earlier in the summer).

    Exactly like you, I thought it was going to be a light read along the lines of the usual girls gone wild trope, and packed it in my suitcase to read by the pool during my trip to Mallorca in the summer. It probably wasn’t the best choice for a book to dip in and out of between swims, as I became completely engrossed and my boyfriend had to drag me away from it.

    Yes, the story is bleak, but it’s also incredibly realistic. I, too, drew comparisons when I watched the recent Louis Theroux documentary. This isn’t purely fiction, this is happening all across America in small towns and cities.

    I loved the characters of Cat and Marlena, despite their flaws. From the beginning we knew that Marlena was doomed, but I couldn’t help hoping that she’d somehow be saved from her fate.

    I really enjoy your book club Lucy! Can’t wait for the next one


  • Pandora Sykes

    Going to buy this, ASAP! Sounds like my vibe, totally.

  • julieOC

    Sounds like a great read. Do you ever have non-fiction or memoir as part of your book club? I am more inclined to read memoir vs fiction. A few good recommendations: a perennial fave that I’ve loaned to so many people who’ve raved is The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls (now a major motion picture), but I’m now reading Finding Ultra by Rich Roll. Its memoir of a tarnished Ivy league swimmer who fell prey to the lure of parties and alcohol abuse in college in an attempt to pull himself out of his highly introverted world. The book, while memoir is a great story of personal redemption and the learning moments that sprout from hitting rock bottom. Roll is an adept storyteller, and a book has to have a good story to keep my ADHD mind focused and interested. Check it out

    • SB

      If you liked The Glass Castle, you should read Joan Didion!!

  • such a great book, so excited to get it now!

  • viktoria

    Thanks for sharing this!

  • SB

    LOVED Marlena x

  • Kelly Marie

    Really loved this! One of those books that really encourages introspection after reading. Like you, I was a bit wary of the opening scene, but it definitely took a haunting turn. I grew to love the characters, especially Marlena. Although I didn’t love every aspect of every character, they all just seemed so real. The rural setting was ideal for this tragic story, and allows an outsider to understand the Opioid epidemic in rural America. (Not sure if that’s what they were ever taking, but it all seems more fathomable to me now.) Great pic, Lucy! Can’t wait for the next xx

  • Lyndsey

    Hi Lucy, loved this book although at the start thought it may be too dark and dismal it actually wasn’t. I got completely engrossed in the story and read it in an afternoon, loved the way Julie Buntin writes and found it to be a good description of what is actually happening in some parts of America (well, everywhere really) with opioid and drug addictions.
    What is the next book, as usually you say the next one to read, looking forward to it!
    Great book club, thanks so much x

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