Marlena by Julie Buntin

One of the first things that goes through my mind while reading an author’s second book is whether or not this effort is a sophomore slump. This year in particular I’ve read several second books by spectacular authors like John Darnielle, Yewande Omotoso, Nickolas Butler and Sarah Gerard. I’ve also read a handful of debuts, all of which have stacked up as some of the better ones I’ve ever read. But in the cases of the sophomore titles, most of them have been good enough to make me order the author’s first book so that I can gauge how they’ve grown, to see what they’ve learned since they released their first book. Julie Buntin worries me. Not because her first novel, Marlena, wasn’t good. But because Marlena is so good, I’m honestly not sure what Buntin can learn between now and her second book’s release.

Marlena opens with a move. Catherine’s parents have split up, it seems mostly to her father’s increasing affection for his new girlfriend. Her mom moves her and her brother to the small town of Silver Lake in northern Michigan. It’s here that Catherine, who eventually goes by Cat, will meet and become best friends with Marlena. They’ll skip school, something Cat has no experience with and Marlena will be Cat’s guide to her litany of firsts. But Silver Lake and skipping school provides Cat and Marlena with plenty of idle time to find trouble, even if they have to seek it out themselves.

When judging a book for quality, you have to wonder if it has merit. Is it well written and is it a good story? Are there wasted words or pages? Buntin appears to have achieved something spectacular with Marlena. In the first few pages I was convinced that I was reading something special. Her words are warm and completely purposeful. Buntin writes at such a level that I often wondered if the book was written by a real live human or the narrator who was living inside the pages. And as the story grew, so did our narrator. By the end of the novel she had matured and the reader had grown. I was left wondering who wrote this book, and how such a journalistic story had come to be published.

Rating: 5 out of 5 – With a gritty warmth, Julie Buntin finds instant success with her debut novel Marlena.

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