From the bestselling author of Sweetbitter, a memoir of growing up in a family shattered by lies and addiction, and of one woman's attempts to find a life beyond the limits of her past. Stray is a moving, sometimes devastating, brilliantly written and ultimately inspiring exploration of the landscapes of damage and survival.
After selling her first novel--a dream she'd worked long and hard for--Stephanie Danler knew she should be happy. Instead, she found herself driven to face the difficult past she'd left behind a decade ago: a mother disabled by years of alcoholism, further handicapped by a tragic brain aneurysm; a father who abandoned the family when she was three, now a meth addict in and out of recovery. After years in New York City she's pulled home to Southern California by forces she doesn't totally understand, haunted by questions of legacy and trauma. Here, she works toward answers, uncovering hard truths about her parents and herself as she explores whether it's possible to change the course of her history.
Lucid and honest, heart-breaking and full of hope, Stray, is an examination of what we inherit and what we don't have to, of what we have to face in ourselves to move forward, and what it's like to let go of one's parents in order to find a peace--and family--of one's own.
I can’t wait for everyone to read this book. Sweetbitter was a wonderful read, if a little too MFA graduate for me, but Stray is a feat. The writing is clear and beautiful and never condescends. She is careful with her subjects and careless with herself, which is to say she’s incredibly honest with us. Definitely recommend!!
I'm still musing on this, mulling it over and trying to wrap my head around it. Stephanie Danler is not nice to herself in this book. She's harsh on everyone - herself, her parents, the people around her. I spent a lot of this book with my heart in my throat, sad for her past and her seeming inability to realize that she isn't actually living in the present while she tries to move on from her horrible childhood. The things she does feel so reactionary and yet believable. This book is the story of a woman viscerally stripping herself bare for the reader, but then at the end something incredible happened to me: Danler doesn't tie everything up in a bow, but she leaves the reader with so much hope. And in the end, that's all we can ask for: not that everything be perfect, but that we know that everything will be okay.
This memoir from Stephanie Danler, recounting the trauma and aftermath of a life with two addicted parents, is a well-written, insightful look behind the curtain of her experiences and how it’s impacted who she is today. Her youth to adulthood was marked by instability, the divorce of her parents, both parents using and abusing drugs and alcohol, physical and emotional abuse, shuttling between homes, and dealing with narcissistic behavior from those meant to set the example for her and her younger sister.
The book is divided into three parts, and up until the last part, I felt fairly detached from her story, like I just couldn’t connect to her experiences. Her life in some ways mimicked her parents, overindulging in alcohol, drugs, and general self-destructiveness. She had a long-term affair with a married man, waiting foolishly for him to leave his wife. She had physical relationships with other men on the side. For the most part, her life choices seemed pretty foreign to me. It wasn’t until the final few chapters that I realized that I was struggling with her story because it was touching a nerve - or a lot of them. She wrote:
“We have a gift for suffering silently. No one taught us how to trust the world, or that we could, so we trust no one. We’ve never developed a sense of self.”
“What is shocking isn’t that we have lived through the traumas of our lives. The miracle is that we’re still remotely permeable.”
That really resonated with me, as someone still working through the repercussions of her own less than ideal upbringing. I understood exactly why she wanted to build walls, and I understood the vulnerability that comes with tearing them down and letting people in. It’s the moment of understanding that the details of and responses to trauma are as varied as the people experiencing it. This book is an example of someone starting to see, as she said, that being victimized doesn’t mean you have to live as a victim.
I would say if the first two parts of this book are the storms and destruction, the final part is the sun finally peeking through the clouds.
I am obviously not the target audience for this memoir. While I found the situation that Ms Danler found herself in as a child of a truly dysfunctional family was horrible, I just could not seem to drum up the empathy factor that should have been there for her.
I felt the writing was flat, unemotional, and dispassionate. It was if the author was viewing her life not really living it.
I do realize that writing a memoir can be a cathartic process for anyone, but the story seem to be impassive and perhaps the ramped up shock value of this story made it difficult to read and assimilate.
So sorry to say, this book was not for me. I do know others have found it a worthwhile read, but unfortunately I was not be counted among them.
This book was incredibly well written and kept my interest from beginning to end. I expect this will be a huge bestseller when it pubs, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it as a celebrity book club selection. Stephanie Danler has cemented herself as a literary superstar and will have a successful writing career with many books in her future.
THAT SAID.... I just couldn't stand Danler. I've never met her and am willing to believe she might actually be a very nice person, but I can only form an opinion based on who she presents herself as in her memoir - a privileged, braggadocios narcissist who I truly struggled to empathize with. Addiction and broken family dynamics touch so many lives that I just couldn't see the point in feeling sorry for Danler in particular - a rich, gorgeous skinny white woman living out her (sad?) days in a posh Laurel Canyon cottage that once belonged to LITERALLY FLEETWOOD MAC. I could not relate to her jet-setting lifestyle, her piles of cash, her rich friends and their numerous vacation homes in exotic locations. This woman basically failed out of high school - had atrocious grades and test scores - yet still landed a spot at a prestigious university writing program because she was connected to an alumni who lobbied on her behalf. The pages where she'd write about the environmental destruction of certain sites in California were especially puzzling/infuriating. She talks about the fires, the mudslides, the destruction of indigenous lands and water sources, and then...? Nothing? She just goes right back to living in Laurel Canyon and that stuff doesn't really effect her...?
I did not care for her descriptions of her relationship with "The Monster" and never really figured out why he earned that name. Splitting the book up into three sections - "Mother", "Father", and finally "Monster" was odd because I felt that the stuff about her parents was at times gut wrenching and raw, but the final third hardly mentioned this monster man at all. I think maybe she was talking about herself in the end? I guess the whole time I was reading the first two portions I kept thinking "man, this person she's in a relationship must be a REAL piece of work if she's named a full third of the book after him" but then it just fizzled out and ended. The entire book was just descriptions of times when she has felt let down by loved ones, and then in the end "welp, guess I'm pregnant now."
I have gone back and forth with rating this 2 or 3 stars but have settled on 3 because I really do believe the writing is gorgeous. It's the only reason I stuck with it. Danler excels at storytelling, even when the subject matter is frustrating. Some readers are going to absolutely ADORE this book, and that's great. It just wasn't for me.
I hated the writing and I hated the author. I can understand how writing something like this can be a powerful step in some sort of emotional recovery journey, but why the heck would you put this out there for the public? It was hard to power through close to 250 pages with zero sympathy for the narrator, whose biggest problem in one chapter was that their dad wouldn't drive them to an interview at Kenyon?! 🙄 Imagine thinking that was a problem other people, strangers in the world, would care about.
And then saying your family didn't have money growing up but then rattling off all the designer drugs you did and how you studied abroad in Rome. And also expecting some sort of consolation when your feelings are hurt because the married man you're seeing isn't leaving his wife for you? Grow up.
I would never recommend this book to anyone.
Here are some excerpts from the writing that had me rolling my eyes particularly hard: "I clean things and they become dirty again"
"A ripe avocado is an optimistic omen in my life, and I have one."
"It comes as no surprise that I see the Monster in the reflection. It was always me."
I met Stephanie Danler a few years ago at the Brooklyn Book Festival, where she sat on a panel with Teddy Wayne (and others) discussing "youth in revolt" or "unlikeable youth" etc. I knew she was speaking and knew I would be there volunteering with Lost Lit/Grumpy Bert and meant to bring my copy of "Sweetbitter," but of course I forgot. I introduced myself and told her I was attending the New School's writing program, herself a graduate from a few years prior. She was gracious and kind, wished me luck and is as startlingly pretty in real life as she is in her author photos.
I bought "Sweetbitter" from the Barnes and Noble at Union Square in the summer of 2016, not realizing that she was a recent graduate of the writing program I was scheduled to attend that fall. It's amazing to think of a time when I didn't know who Stephanie Danler was, since as soon as I arrived at the New School she was an instant celebrity in that community. Not only a best-selling author who had won the incredible lottery of said title, but a graduate from just a couple years ago. We were taking classes from the same teachers, probably sitting in the same classrooms. She wasn't some famous writer from thirty years ago that had struck it big or had taken classes from legendary professors long dead. She was the person we all imagined ourselves to be, who many of us I'm sure, still want to be. Young, beautiful, successful, a regular person who became a big hit, who wrote a television show based on their best-selling novel.
It's interesting then, to read "Stray," Danler's forthcoming memoir that I found on the galley shelf at the bookstore pre-pandemic. Reading about what Danler's life was like when "Sweetbitter" was coming out (that same summer I was reading it on my couch in my studio apartment in Harlem fighting crazy panic attacks and realizing if I could survive and just get to my MFA program I too could be just like her)...well it's a reminder of one of the big lessons my graduate school experience taught me: that success isn't a marker of your life or how your life feels.
Danler's memoir is broken up into three parts, Mother, Father and Monster, and details her life shortly after and during the release of her novel as she struggles with a toxic affair with a man she calls "The Monster," a side-piece relationship with another man, "The Love Interest," all while reckoning with a difficult childhood as the daughter of two substance users. Her mother suffers from a brain aneurysm and survives, so Danler returns to Los Angeles from NYC to care for her. Danler is an exceptional writer. Her descriptions of California and her observations of herself and others are so keen. She can make the uninteresting seem interesting, invoking the five senses in such a way that made the culinary aspects of "Sweetbitter" soar off the page. I felt propelled through this memoir, despite there being very little movement or action. Danler's wise accolades (that pepper the pages of most memoirs) aren't cliched, for the most part they're touching and relevant, without ego or expectation.
However, the memoir never felt fully formed. Since both her mother and father's substance abuse created so much distance between them and her, there are only a few years that Danler writes about with any clarity and they felt honest but not particularly dynamic. Almost as if we're seeing the events through a screen. My own memories of trauma feel this way sometimes, as if I'm viewing them through a fog. Danler acknowledges that her experiences can't be validated by her parents due to their cognitive issues and her other family member's differing perceptions, in a portion of the book I found extremely moving, despite the fact that it doesn't change the monotony of later chapters that feel the same. As I read I also felt assured that this will be criticized for being "navel-gazing." I remember being shocked at the same criticism leveled at Cheryl Strayed's memoir in which she details living at home without water or electricity after surviving domestic abuse and losing her mother. So one can assume Danler's memoir of a crappy relationship while living in a cottage in Laurel Canyon after publishing an incredibly successful novel will likely strike some as privileged or whiny. I'm not sure she deserves that criticism, but I did notice the lack of awareness of this potential criticism. Not that a writer should feel forced to personally address criticisms that have yet to be leveled. But it did feel absent of reflection on where she fit in the greater scheme of the World of Pain. Take that for what you will, since the race to determine Whose Pain Is Worse has yet to have any winners.
While the memoir is divided into sections, the interconnectedness of all the players made it so that they bled into every section, making some of the section separation seem unnecessary. I felt the division of chapters by locations served the book more. And the reveal of who the true "monster" was towards the end was interesting and well done, but the endless focus on the man called The Monster was much less compelling. There seemed to be more focus on him than her family, which might be because he was actually in her life for years that neither of her parents were.
But reading about a shitty partner and a shitty relationship isn't new to anyone whose ever lived and Danler didn't have anything to say about it that was new. His portions were the weakest of the memoir. Even when she writes about her best friends intolerance of him I still felt bored, since again, every human alive has dealt with a beloved who gives themselves to someone who can't hope to deserve them in this life or the next.
In fact, my favorite person on the page wasn't Danler's parents or her boyfriends, it was her aunt, a former LA prosecutor whose biting wit and incredible presence shown through in Danler's writing. Their dynamic felt the most fraught, the most energectic, as they interacted. Here is a woman with a vivacious personality that hasn't been dumbed down by substance abuse, but who's reckoning with much of the same trauma that Danler is. She was very present at the beginning of the memoir, but soon she's replaced almost entirely by The Monster and this was such a shame.
All of this can not erase the fact that Danler is an exceptional writer. She's proven capable of taking her talents to television, with similar stellar results. She's a strong observer, like I said, and her ability to pull me through this memoir interested in the outcome and emotionally affected even when it didn't always work, is proof of her talents. It's clear she doesn't see herself as "exceptional," and is comfortable confronting all parts of herself, especially as she moves forward into motherhood. There's much a young writer like me can learn from her work, and I look forward to learning more from her in the future.
The writer had an interesting childhood with both parents being not only eccentric but addicts; her mom with alcohol and her dad almost every drug available. She also seemed to have had some privilege (attending private school, traveling abroad) that made it harder for me to sympathize with her at points. There was too much historical context on Los Angeles landmarks. I got bored with those. The story was all over the place and hard to follow. I couldn't place Eli for a few chapters. I thought maybe he was the 'Love Interest' or the 'Monster'. Even the last couple of pages seemed rushed. Pregnant and done with the married guy but we were just on that kick. This was exhausting. I found myself just ready to be done reading.
Sigh. I’ve been looking forward to this one for awhile but ultimately found it forgettable. Danler is a beautiful writer and lays a lot of personal trauma out for this memoir. However, it seemed all she cared about was delivering tantalizing and ethereal writing and not much about the events or the reading experience. This was really poorly organized and she held back on everything aside from her parents. Which wouldn’t have been an issue if that was the focus, but a lot of the book was about her romantic relationships and career successes. It was supposed to be so raw and real, yet it didn’t feel like we ever met her.
How many bestselling novelists follow up their debut success with a memoir? I was deeply curious why Stephanie Danler chose to steer away from fiction, but reading Stray, I could see how there would be no detour for her but to write this book. From start to finish, Stephanie Danler’s memoir maintains a firm grip on the reader through her clear eyed narration from the perspective of a child of California, drawn back to the landscape and the people she loves—despite every challenge. She’s an uprooted soul, wrestling with two parents caught in the grip of addictions. This is not a nostalgic or sentimental book. I am drawn to unflinching authors whose flinty stories reveal a bedrock of enormous love and a yearning for connection. Throughout the book, I felt the muscle memory of compulsive reading. Danler plays with archetypes and mythologies surrounding family, class, geography, and American mobility. It’s about the continued need for reconciliation that doesn’t find satisfaction in success. This book is a reckoning with unstable homes. I couldn’t put it down which seems to be a real theme of late. If you’re a parent with limited time, you’re only going to finish the books that won’t let you go. This was one of them.
Reading this memoir felt like being a therapist across the couch from a self-absorbed, privileged California girl, who blurts out disheveled thoughts and complaints as they come to her. You try to follow her disorganized rants about how awful her life was growing up vacationing and studying in places like Greece and Rome, and how hard it is to date a married man behind his wife's back. She wants you to know she is the victim of drug-addicted, absent parents, while nursing her own love affair with sedatives.
Thank goodness I am not a therapist, and I never should have bought this book.
I listened to this memoir through an audiobook narrated by Alex McKenna and it was wonderful. I love memoirs and Stephanie Danler’s account of her past, living through parental failures, addressing issues of mental health, substance abuse, and trauma was truly heartbreaking and immersive. The fragility of our relationships and how it affects many years later, consuming you is a very important topic to address. Danler does it so brilliantly in this fearless memoir I highly recommend.
It was just okay. At time I forgot this was a memoir of living with addicted parents because it seemed a little sensational. I did not care if I finished or not, but I did. She addresses drug related trauma including being kicked out of her home and living with others, but provides only a cursory account of her own addictions to drugs and extramarital sexual encounters. Would loved for her to dive deeper. In the end she finds love and perhaps even peace. Completely forgettable read.
I was a very big fan of Sweetbitter. It was the perfect combination of literary fiction, poetic language and page-turner, reminded me of Eve Babitz (whose collection Black Swans Danler wrote a forward to). The characters felt so real, and I found it utterly absorbing.
Okay-sorry to be down on the new book, but I felt like this was something she wrote in between novels (hoping she'll come out with another novel at some point.) Yes, it's incredibly tragic what she went through with her parents, but so much of the writing was flat, cliched and melodramatic with a "Dear Diary" adolescent quality I couldn't quite get beyond.
I ended up not really caring about anyone, even her. Maybe my caring was mostly hampered by the melodramatic storyline of the married man. It all came across as quite navel-gazing, which I couldn't quite reconcile with the painful material of the parents' stories, and thus I kept trying to give the book a chance out of empathy for her and what she went through.
I never understood what drew her to the married man other than he was a hot asshole, but his character came across as incredibly flat. Why did this storyline have to come into the book? Yes, I got that she was abandoned by her father and felt she could save the married dude like she could the dad. But the book's final simplistic piecing together of these two strains of codependence-what probably to her was intense and deep work done with her therapist- wasn't that interesting to me as a piece of literature. The Love Interest as well (who I'm glad to hear is now her partner) came across as so flat, just a kind hippie dude who keeps telling her reverentially and moonily he can see how much she loves Conflict.
There were some powerful scenes, such as the mother driving her car through the flower shop, but it always came back to a feeling of "me, me, me!" Much felt fragmented...like the chapter with a few paragraphs on the history of the Salton Sea, and other disconnected ruminations on landscape...it was as if she kept trying to connect Southern California to her particular story, but it never connected for me, not in the way Babitz' work does, threading California's landscape into emotional story. It could have taken place anywhere, to be honest.
I think if she would have let the language lead instead of a kind of hasty cobbling together of difficult events, or even written this as a novel, she could have saved herself the regressive creative step that this book represents for me as a reader of her work. And I think given her Instagrammable beauty and her presence there, this book falls in line with that branding. It seems to have arrived with a built-in audience there. To me this is an example of a writer perhaps getting caught up in the glitz of social media and losing her connection to the actual work.
There wasn't much to come away with in terms of feeling moved, or even that as a literary work that it cohered or elevated itself above the sordid details. Sarah Manguso is a writer who comes to mind when taking something quite tragic (her friend's suicide) and elevating it into a work of art. Beyond the disappointment as a work of literature, I'm happy for the author that she finally found peace with her man and children.I do feel she's coasting here and hope she can return to the glory of Sweetbitter at some point.
Although I did enjoy this, I found it a little disjointed. I'm not sure what the flow of the memoir was supposed to be other than random stories about the author's life which I did find interesting. The audio was well done. I do wish I read her first book, Sweetbriar, first. Maybe it would have given me better context for this book.
I hope that this was a cathartic process for Ms. Danler, and if it was, then it accomplished what it was supposed to. This was anything but entertaining, it was like reading a train wreck and you had problems looking away. The dysfunctional upbringing was pretty bad, mother and father addicted to substances and their own lives.
The writing was good, but as a reader, it is hard to connect with a character that doesn't like themselves and I found that I had only sympathy for her and very little empathy. Thank goodness she has a therapist on a regular basis.
Nothing is ever simply black and white but people will still refuse to see the gray until you show them.
Stray discusses three things in earnest-Stephanie Danler's mother, her father and her affair with a married man. I could write about how carefully she explores her childhood, as now seen through the eyes of an adult. How addiction affected every aspect of her life and yet she didn't succumb to it, herself. Instead I want to share how much I appreciated her honesty about having an affair.
Affairs are touchy subjects, especially when the people involved don't appear to be begging for forgiveness. Nobody wants to think that the person they're with would be capable of connecting with someone else, of committing the ultimate betrayal. To read about such a case is difficult, yes, but more than that, it's...humanizing. Admitting something that most would keep private cracks herself wide open for all of us. Allows us to inspect her closely to find the parts of us that match. It's no easy feat and she does it near flawlessly. Nothing in this memoir felt trite, though it had every opportunity to be so. A child forgives their parents? Chooses love after a lifetime of hiding from it? It sounds indulgent but translates as nothing short of remarkable.
“It’s in the act of having, the daily tending, that we have the opportunity to become deserving. It’s not a place to be reached. It is a constant betwixt and between.”
This memoir is full of so many treasures like this one. As a child of privilege and a generally easy, loving family, I thought I might not be able to relate to this book - which reveals Stephanie's traumatic childhood dealing with an alcoholic mother and drug-addicted father. And yet, there were so many pages that I dog-eared and lines that I re-read because she puts words to feelings that so many people have experienced (perhaps just with less trauma). With the same poetic sensibility displayed in her novel and breakout debut "Sweetbitter," Danler has gifted us with a courageous and vital memoir.
"Epiphanies aren't lightning bolts. They are a hummed note, a prayer mumbled constantly, brought to the surface given the right conditions."
So much of what I loved about Sweetbitter shined even more brightly in Stephanie Danler's memoir STRAY. The writing! The writing. Oh gosh, the writing. I feel inadequate to describe what exactly kept me turning these pages. When it comes to the way Danler is able to meander through her life, connecting feelings and emotions about everything from a neglected childhood to a complicated adult relationship. Danler's descriptions of her childhood, adolescence and the lessons she still was learning through early adulthood were stark, harsh and yet still invoked hope and emotion with each line in a way that kept me hanging on her every word.
Stephanie’s words struck a very intimate chord within my own life experiences, this book was everything I never knew I needed in words. Thank you Stephanie for your bravery in sharing your own story, so openly. This book was beautiful & I also appreciated the interwoven sentiments about the Southern California landscapes, as someone who grew up & maintains family in those areas I enjoyed the inclusion of this fascinating insight.
A memoir about growing up in an addictied dysfunctional gamily. I did not care for this book. Her experiences were terrible but her own behavior equally reprehensible. I found it imoirssible to emphathized with her. On top of all that she was whinny.
Pretty sure I will love anything Stephanie Danler writes, even if only for the juicy sensory descriptions. There were times when those descriptions of her traumatic childhood caused me to recoil, and they certainly built compassion for her, and admiration for her making it as far as she has in life. As others have mentioned, some of the choices that Danler makes in this book tested that empathy, but she never lost me completely. Ultimately, the conclusion that she comes to left me feeling hopeful, and I do feel like her story gave me a new sliver of wisdom.