It's been 36 hours since I finished Stephanie Danler's new book, and I'm still parsing through the feelings it surfaced. Stray is a memoir, a collection of essays. It's fearless, insightful, devastating, and beautiful. It broke my heart, and it twisted up my insides. The stories are still sitting in my gut.
I became a fan of Danler's writing back in 2016 when I read her debut novel, Sweetbitter, a book that deserved all the buzz it received when it was released — and again when the TV adaptation hit the small screen. That story is dark and sparkly, a coming-of-age narrative that centers around a young woman who dives into the New York City restaurant world. I loved the prose and the way it continued to surprise me. The same is true of Stray, but multiply that element of surprise by, well, a lot.
Stray begins with Danler living back in LA, the city she grew up in and later left when her mother kicked her out of the house. In high school, she moved in with her father in Colorado, then she attended college in Ohio before landing in NYC. Each of those phases is revisited in the book as the narrative moves between times and places to capture memories of Danler's upbringing and her adulthood, exploring how the former weaved its way into the latter.
She writes candidly about her family history, her parents' addictions, and moments from her childhood — some sweet, many haunting — that left a mark. She speaks to the end of her marriage, the impact of an affair, and the friendships that served as life rafts along the way. With insight and wit and startling honesty, she digs into the relationships that shaped and reshaped, again and again, her perspectives on family, love, and home. Danler wrestles with the moments that made her and how the wrestling never really ends.
"Epiphanies aren't lightning bolts," she writes. "They are a hummed note, a prayer mumbled constantly, brought to the surface given the right conditions."
Parts of Stray feel very much like a prayer.
Danler wrestles with the moments that made her and how the wrestling never really ends.
Much of it is complicated: Danler's relationship with each of her parents, the way their troubles affected her and her younger sister, the dynamics she shared with some of the men in her life. She explores why she left her marriage and how she feels about the nuances of a crushing affair. She visits her mother and describes her deteriorating health, sharing what it's like to nurse a person who hurt her. In piercing detail she illustrates her father's addiction, the anger and pain and lingering love she feels.
Those moments exist in sharp contrast to the shiny success of her first book, and the way Danler slips between past and present make the disparity all the more jarring.
If it feels like I'm being vague about various details, that's because I am — on purpose. Danler writes (beautifully, achingly) about the family she comes from and the one she's created for herself. She writes about her survival instinct — how she "shakily scaffolded a life that may hold [her] for a while" — and I don't want to touch on too many of her stories because they're best read altogether. Note, though, that Stray deals with dark, difficult themes: drugs, emotional abuse, physical abuse. It's a book that goes there, and it sits with you. Certain scenes are unsettling.
By the time I turned those final pages, though, I somehow felt more centered. That's a testament to Danler's storytelling and to the crystal-clear lens she's turned back on to herself and her experiences.
As with my Sweetbitter hardcover, my copy of Stray is heavily underlined. I kept making note of the most striking lines, and there are a lot of them. If you follow Danler on Instagram, you know she's a reader of poetry, and that comes through in the way she writes. It's stunning.
I'm tempted to wrap up my thoughts about Stray in a way that will recommend this book while bracing readers for its emotional impact. But, as Danler writes: "There is nothing falser to me than a story that ends with catharsis."
If you love: Sweetbitter, emotion-packed memoirs, and lyrical prose.