When Life is a Rolling Stones Song: Marlena by Julie Buntin

Originally published August 2017

Do you remember 15?

The angst? Not knowing if or where you fit in? Desperate for attention, and willing to sacrifice your dignity to get it, all while not realizing you are giving anything up?

Julie Buntin does. And she nails it with “Marlena.”

If your head ever plays a soundtrack while you’re reading, this book will evoke chords from “Waiting on a Friend.” Or “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Maybe even “Emotional Rescue.” Any of those tracks could be laid down over 15-year-old Cat’s life, as she’s pulled from the cloistered-like safety of a southeastern Michigan boarding school and transplanted in an almost-one-stoplight town up North —desolate in every season except summer, and a haven for meth makers.

Cat, her older brother Jimmy and her mother are trying to start over after a divorce and land next to the Joyners —Marlena, her brother Sal and her father — and Cat immediately stumbles upon the elder Joyner’s drug operation out in the back forty. When you’re 15, you can recognize dangerous situations for sure, but when you are lonely, you’re less likely to avoid them. And so it goes for Cat, entranced by Marlena’s reckless lifestyle. In their year together, Cat runs pretty much the whole gamut of teenage firsts, none of which bring her the satisfaction she’s craving. In fact, as we flash forward once in a while throughout the novel, it’s clear Cat still can’t shake the ghosts of Kewaunee, try as she might.

Not everyone falls into “that” group of friends, but a lot of kids try it on for size. The ones that skip school, smoke in the Dairy Queen parking lot, ride in the back of pickup trucks, get high, steal their parents’ wine, party in empty houses, and yes, sell drugs. It’s an eye-opening experience for Cat, this group of people that seemingly take her in but somehow stiff arm her toward the edges. Whose acceptance does she really want? Theirs? Her mother’s? Her brother’s? Her father’s? Cat’s long gone from Michigan, but even as an adult, she’s still trying to figure it out.

I was sucked in from the first chapter, thanks to skillful, suspenseful writing. It’s an emotionally raw read, and though trending toward YA, it works well for any variety of audiences. If you’re thinking about it for a teenager, I wouldn’t shy away from it, as long as you know there are some fairly hard core themes. Really, an excellent read —a beautiful, sad and in the end, hopeful take on adolescence.

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