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Why Do We Love the Wild Girl? Thoughts on "Marlena"

Thank God for Julie Buntin.

That's what I have been saying to myself after finishing her debut novel, Marlena. I couldn't stop thinking about the characters. As I closed the book, I felt as though I was leaving behind people I cared about, people that have been actually present in my life.

For the month of November, Write or Die Tribe focused on adolescence and the coming-of-age story, within our writing prompts and exercises. There is so much to say about this beautiful and confusing time that shaped who we are as people today.  

As a lover of coming-of-age novels, especially about girls, Marlena checked every box for me, exposing the truth, beauty, confusion, disgust, fear, and freedom of growing up. Set in rural Michigan, fifteen-year-old Cat is plunged into a new beginning after her parents' divorce, when her mother moves her and her brother Jimmy into a mobile home neighborhood in the middle of nowhere. There, Cat meets Marlena and immediately finds herself in a whirlwind of skipping school, getting drunk, popping pills, and wild girl recklessness.

To me, this story was more than chronic, small-town boredom and female friendships. Each page was alive and I was right there with Cat and Marlena, breathing in their cigarette infused air, feeling the sting of Michigan winter on my skin. There are few novels that transport me like this. I’m already being haunted by flashes of random scenes from the book as if I am being reminded of my own past.

Cat's perspective of girlhood, during scenes from her teenage years and later when she is an adult, are void of the cliches we go often hear and instead hold truth and meaning. But it also shed light on the types of girl other girls deem worthy of admiration. The wild girl.

Why do we love her so much? She is reckless with her body, with her words, with her appearance, with her life. We long to be friends with her just so we can get a taste of that wildness, hoping it will rub off. Buntin captures this notion throughout the novel, just also more intensely in this passage:

“When you were an adult, all the promises of your life was foreclosed upon, every day just a series of compromises mitigated by little pleasures that distract you from your former wildness, from your truth. Sylvia Plath, Marilyn Monroe, Edie Sedgwick, Janis Joplin. They got to be beautiful forever. And wasn’t that the ultimate feminine achievement- to be too gorgeous, too fucked up, too talented and sad and vulnerable to survive, like some kind of freak orchid with a two-minute lifespan?”

Are you all wild at heart but are too distracted by insecurities or fears to unleash it? Too scared to have that kind of freedom? Is it freedom at all?

We definitely glamorized the "fucked up" girl in our society and I fall into the trap every time. I too am infatuated with her. I look for novels, movies, TV shows that highlight this girl because I just need to know more and more about her. I want details on her drug addiction, windows into her sex life, I want to see how she grooms herself, or doesn't. How she prepares to live out each day. I want to know her so badly.

I think that is why Cat fell hopelessly in love with Marlena, even when she found it difficult to understand why. When Marlena was drugged out of her mind, or when she spat hurtful words at Cat, only to apologize by saying the right thing. These wild girls are selfish but they are just so damn lovable.

If it wasn't already obvious, I loved this book. Sometimes it feels like there is no greater feeling to ending a novel that touched you to your core and pulled things out of you that you weren't expecting.


By Julie Buntin

274 pages. 2017.

Buy it here.


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