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Michigan Fiction: Marlena

Wed, 05/24/2017 - 3:21pm by eapearce

For those of us who have spent all or most of our lives in Michigan, Julie Buntin’s striking descriptions of a desolate, gray northern winter will strike a chord. Buntin lives in New York now, but she spent her formative years in northern Michigan, and this is the setting for her first novel, Marlena. The narrator of the story, Cat, has just moved to tiny Silver Lake, far up the western coast of the mitten, with her recently- divorced mother and older brother. The family struggles to make ends meet; Cat’s mother cleans houses for the wealthy tourists and her brother works nights at a plastics factory. Cat is lonely and unhappy, until she meets her next door neighbor, 17-year-old blonde, beautiful Marlena. As their lives become increasingly intertwined, Cat dives deeper into the dark world of addiction and illegal activity. An older Cat narrates portions of the novel, looking back on her time in Silver Lake with Marlena, and struggles to make sense of the beauty and tragedy she experienced there.

Set in 2006, in the early days of the opioid epidemic, the book is a fascinating and devastating testament to how easy it is to lose control. Buntin clearly writes from a place of experience and awareness, which allow the story to rise above others of its kind. Marlena, Cat, and the others who do what they must to survive in a bleak world that seems to have no future are not characters easily forgotten.

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