Review: The Trouble With Marlene by Billie Livingston

Annick Press was kind enough to send me another little gem from its YA Single Voice series: The Trouble with Marlene by Billie Livingston. I will also have a few words to say about Film Studies by Caroline Adderson, the flipside of this book, which I think was a great pairing.

The Trouble With Marlene by Billie Livingston
Samantha is a teen living with her pill-popping, wine-swilling mother, who openly expresses her desire to take her own life. Her parents were small-time hustlers until her father was caught and thrown in jail. Although he has apparently been released, he has yet to contact his daughter. Her mother, Marlene, botched a robbery attempt two years before and was severely beaten. As a result, she is psychologically unstable and has developed a dependence on alcohol and drugs.

The various men Marlene drags home, her yelling at the landlady, the immature arguments with her daughter, a home without food and often without a mom or any indication of her whereabouts are just some of the details of Sammie's unsettling life. She has Drew whom she met at a welfare-funded Christian summer camp. Although Sammie needs Drew, she's unsure of her feelings for him and is reluctant to let anyone see her real life. But Marlene's increasing instability leaves poor Sammie with little choice. Marlene's repeated desire to die leads poor Sammie to actually contemplate giving her mother what she wants--her own death. Then at least, she would have some peace in her life, which she so desperately needs.

Livingston has crafted a fast-moving and intensely dark story that makes the reader extremely sympathetic to Sammie's plight and desperation. Told entirely from the 16-year-old's point of view, the story gives the reader a very realistic and chilling account of what it might be like to be Sammie. Unlike her mother, Sammie is resourceful enough to use a clever trick to buy food and has the good sense to reach out to Drew when she really needs help. Marlene is the one who is completely helpless. Livingston did a great job of creating an immature and needy Marlene, who is too ill-equipped to look after herself, let alone a teenage daughter.

Kudos to Livingston for shedding light on a very dysfunctional situation that we all know exists, but refuse to acknowledge. Maybe now both parents and teens will look at that young panhandler on the corner a little differently.

Film Studies by Caroline Adderson is the story of 16-year-old Cassandra who also has a very needy, depressive mother and an absent father who is a film-maker. Cassandra like Samantha has to be a parent to her faltering mother, calling in sick for her and consoling her after she is dumped by a string of "inappropriate men." Seemingly oblivious to Cassandra's feelings, her mother briefly reconciles with Cassandra's father without telling her.

The 16-year-old, who puts on a cool "Ice Queen" exterior to keep her classmates at a distance, is enrolled in film studies in an attempt to better understand her father and his art. In a film project, she pushes her performance with her new boyfriend a little too far in an attention-seeking ploy to exact revenge on her parents, who are too self-involved to think about their daughter's feelings.

Film Studies was a great match for Livingston's The Trouble With Marlene. FS is not as dark, but it mirrors the situation of a daughter parenting her mother, a situation that is more common than we think. In Film Studies, many teens will find some validation for their contradictory feelings towards their parents.

Psst...Billie Livingston has agreed to answer some of my questions about The Trouble with Marlene. I'm thrilled to have a chance to speak with this original author who gives a voice to so many women without one in mainstream culture.

Other reviews:
The Girls’ History and Culture Reader: The Twentieth Century
Greedy Little Eyes by Billie Livingston
Dead Time by Christy Ann Conlin
The Social Media Survival Guide by Deltina Hay
The Birth House by Ami McKay
The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis
The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou
Unless by Carol Shields
Essex County by Jeff Lemire



C from Opinionated Ant | April 8, 2011 at 10:08 AM

Wow these both sound like really amazing stories. It is so sad but true that there are parent child relationships like this when the child ends up the parent.

Heather | April 8, 2011 at 11:01 AM

I think that there are a lot of young adults out there parenting their parents. Giving them their own story is a way for them not to feel so alone. Thanks for stopping by C!

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