For some obvious reasons this book draws comparisons to Emma Cline’s The Girls. They’re both about chaotic and intense friendships between teen girls. And in both, the story is also told in sections about the future.
Both share this second feature and it’s a failure of both. Neither book really justifies the future sections. Both would be better served by a voice from the future, but not one whose life we get much of a glimpse of. The difference these two books comes mostly from the fact that Marlena is a good book dragged down by two distinct flaws, and The Girls is bad book not made any worse by that particular flaws. This book has a much more authentic voice and is told with more sympathy and care. I found The Girls to be careless with its subject.
So Marlena is actually about Cat moving to upstate Michigan after her parents divorce and falling in with the beautiful and chaotic Marlena, her next door neighbor and enabler. We learn in the first few pages that Marlena will die, drowned in a river (though the details are left out), and that this is the driving and central event in Cat’s early life and current consciousness (as Marlena’s young brother has contact the older Cat looking to talk.
The writing is good. It really is. And the slow growth of the connection between the very needy Marlena and Cat’s family feels natural and justified. It’s full of uncomfortable sections about toxic lifestyles and bad sex and bad teachers in small towns.
If not for the future sections and if not for something that happens late in the novel, this would be a four.