I liked this book a lot more than I expected to. The premise (not a spoiler, the jacket covers this and you learn the main fact right away in the first chapter) is that a teenage girl, Cat, finds her life upended when her parents divorce and her mother takes her and her brother away to a small town in northern Michigan, to live in a crappy house surrounded by trailer houses and people doing shady things. Cat meets neighbor Marlena, a couple of years older in age but far older in experience, and they become friends, in spite of Cat's naivete. Marlena pulls Cat out of her "good girl" role. But less than a year after they meet, Marlene is found dead, supposedly drowned in the nearby forest.
So the premise is kind of been there, done that, teenage girl uprooted by divorce falls in with a bad crowd. But author Buntin brings a lot of complexity to the bad crowd (with the exception of Marlena's father, who's pretty much a stock character) and makes you root for Marlena to get away from all this, even though you know from the get-go that she won't.
Buntin chose a framework that was risky. The book is told first person through Cat's eyes, when Cat is two decades older and looking back. Most of the time, that works, but there are times when it feels strained. There's a secondary plot line where someone from those early Michigan years reaches out to adult Cat, now living in New York, and she prepares to meet him. The actual meeting is a bit of a letdown and leads to an epiphany I didn't quite buy.
Still, Buntin understands grief, especially young, disbelieving grief, and she understands the way adolescence can haunt us years after we thought we'd escaped it:
"[My husband] know about Marlena, but the broad strokes only--if anyone from my life outside of Michigan knew, and not many did, that was all they got. As a girl, I'd had a friend who died. We were close. I didn't talk about it. When you grow up, who you were as a teenager either takes on a mythical importance or it's completely laughable. I wanted to be the kind of person who wiped those years away; instead, I feared, they defined me."
So, somewhat flawed, but overall worth the read, and I'll definitely watch for her next book.