Reading Julie Buntin’s Marlena right after Please Proceed to the Nearest Exit by Jessica Raya, it struck me that there are really a lot of books about brilliant friends. By that I mean, the deeply intense and formative friendships between young girls that shape their lives. One friend goes on to success and the other to tragedy in one form or another. The successful friend is always the more pedestrian one of the pair, the brilliant one burns out or burns up. I think in the future, I will just call them “brilliant friend” books in honor of the uniquely brilliant  My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante who shows us that both friends can survive into adulthood. But there seems to be so many recently, The Girls by Emma Cline and the horrific The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel all give us brilliant friends who challenge the storyteller to be bolder and braver.

In Marlena, Cat becomes best friends with Marlena, her next-door neighbor. They meet when Cat, her mother, and brother move to a new home bought sight-unseen by their mother after their father took off with a younger woman. Cat is angry and resentful, leaving behind her friends and her private prep school for this one-horse town and Marlena is the perfect friend, bold, defiant, irreverent and law-breaking. Their friendship is forged in days of skipping school over cigarettes and alcohol. From the outset, Marlena was taking drugs, usually Oxo, but Cat, wisely did not follow her in that. In everything else, though, Cat was her companion.

While Cat felt poor, Marlena was poor. While Cat’s father ran off, Marlena’s mother disappeared. Cat’s mother cleaned houses, Marlena’s father was a drug dealer. Cat was often disdainful of her mother and Marlena would get angry, seeing how Cat’s mother was an anchor of safety. “Marlena called me naïve, but what I really think she meant is privileged, a word people use like an insult in New York, but that I’ve always taken to mean safe. Privilege is something to be aware of, to fight to see beyond, but ultimately to be grateful for. It’s like a bulletproof vest; it makes you harder to kill.”

We know from the outset that this friendship ends in tragedy. Marlena drowns, Cat tells us, within a year of their meeting. The story is her recollection of their friendship and her questioning what she might have done differently, how Marlena could have not died that day. The older Cat narrating the story from the security and success of her thirties is haunted by Marlena and holds on to alcohol, perhaps to keep that connection alive.

Marlena is beautifully written and is an authentic exploration of that deep teenage friendship that is so all-encompassing when we are young. Buntin is a beautiful writer and she captures that friendship in all its glory and freedom. The people in our lives change us. Cat is forever changed by Marlena, “wasn’t it her who made me louder when I needed to be, who made me brave at night, walking home with all that cash? She’s the way I swear and how I let men look at me or not, she’s the bit of steel at my center, either her, herself, or the loss of her. Before that year I was nothing but a soft, formless girl, waiting for someone to come along and tell me who to be.”

I loved this story. I think we all have our brilliant friends who are part of our formation. For most of us, they are friends with whom we lose touch, who move away or stay behind, who are thought of more often than they are called or written, who are part of our present, even though the friendship and the connection is long past.

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