Photo Source: https://www.audible.com/pd/Stray-Audiobook/0593212061
A review of Stray, by Stephanie Danler
(Audiobook read by Alex McKenna)
Stephanie Danler is one of my favorite authors. Sweetbitter, her debut novel, is one of my favorite books. I’ve read it more than once, listened to the audiobook, and even watched the short-lived series they made it into.
Danler’s writing is so luxurious. Nothing is perfect. People are mishappen and problematic. The backdrops are vivid. The stories are devour-able. Still, I don’t really read memoirs. I have read few. I have a hard time distinguishing fiction and non-fiction. I find it hard to believe that any story told can be totally the truth. We always skew things in our own ways. But I wanted to read Stray, which is a memoir. I wanted to live in a new world Danler created for me. And I loved it.
Stray is about Danler in a transition era. Her first book, Sweetbitter is about to come out. She has moved back to Los Angeles, from New York. She is dating a married man (“The Monster”), is newly divorced herself, and is also dating a new person (the “Love Interest”) who she eventually marries. She is thinking about her parents, both addicts. Her mother is permanently disabled. Her father is not so much in the picture. Danler weaves the present of the book with the past, her youth, her relationships with her family, her romantic relationships, and how everything connects.
As a child of an addict, I saw myself in Danler’s story. I am younger, so I do not pretend to have everything figured out. But I understand the threads: how growing up with an addict teaches you love in a different way. Danler writes,
Loving liars, addicts, or people who abuse your love is a common affliction […] No one taught us to trust the world, or that we could, so we trust no one. We’ve never developed a sense of self.
I mean goddamn. Danler writes so clearly things I can’t put into words. Or would feel too embarrassed to. In the memoir, Danler chases the kind of relationships she knows. Ones where she can reconstruct her relationships with her parents. Like a psycho-drama. I think a lot of us do this. We fall into safety patterns; we fall into hurts we know. the story follows her process of moving away from this kind of self-destruction.
At the end of the memoir, Danler talks about boundaries, about cutting her parents off and setting rules for their relationships. Danler cuts her father off because he has returned to active addiction. She stops seeing the Monster, and instead throws herself into the relationship with The Love Interest. Danler puts up boundaries, but it doesn’t destroy her. Instead, she thrives. She writes,
It’s through boundaries that we construct ourselves, say, here is where you and I begin.
Boundaries, especially with family, can feel wrong. Can feel guilty. But Danler finds them necessary, even if they change as time goes on. I think what she is saying is that to know ourselves, we can’t take on anyone else. We have to let things go. Things being people, memories, safety nets. We have to set ourselves apart.
Danler also talks about climate change, specifically in California. She paints a picture of the desert and the ways humans have changed it. The ways LA has changed the landscape. Without ways to protect it, parts of the environment have disappeared. There is a history of taking and not giving anything back. Of course, this mirrors Danler’s own relationships. She is the landscape, her toxic relationships are the taking of resources, and boundaries are the protective laws. Through boundaries, she keeps herself whole.
Danler’s writing is beautiful. She doesn’t apologize for her upbringing, for her past, for her actions. She leans into them. She tries to understand them. It is so satisfying when she finally figures it out. The book ends with her and The Love Interest married and pregnant. (Danler now has two children. Still lives in California.) She comes out the other side, still adjusting boundaries, but more centered, more understanding of her past, and still further from it.
For anyone who likes stories about the past and trauma, how we replay trauma in our lives, how we self-destruct, I recommend this memoir. Completely.