When Stephanie Danler published her debut novel in 2016, her status in the literary world skyrocketed. Sweetbitter, which traced the turbulent coming of age of a back waiter in New York City, received glowing reviews, was adapted for television and changed Danler’s life. Selling her book meant she no longer had to wait tables and, at 31 years old, could finally afford to live alone. Danler documents the years that followed her life-altering book deal in her new memoir, Stray. But the book isn’t a rags-to-riches story. Instead, Danler explores the ugly areas of her past, sorting through troublesome memories to make room for positive change.
In Stray, Danler splits her life into sections. The first and second, titled “Mother” and “Father,” describe her relationships with her parents. The former is an alcoholic and, when Danler was in college, became disabled because of a brain aneurysm. The latter, with whom Danler lived in high school, struggled with an addiction to cocaine. The third and final section of the book, “Monster,” recounts Danler’s affair with a married man. In those pages, the author wrestles with how many of her parents’ self-destructive tendencies she absorbed while growing up, and then acted on as an adult.
The memoir centers on damaging behavior— substance abuse, physical abuse and painful cycles of neglect—but is written in gripping and refreshingly plain terms. While in a fight with her mother, Danler pushes her down a flight of stairs. In the aftermath, she is disturbed by the physical manifestation of her rage. Afterward, Danler writes, “Once I had tipped the power balance, I was at sea, sinking with regret.” Years later, she watches her now handicapped mother lose control while driving her car. The crash yields a devastating conclusion for the author—that someone must be responsible for her mother, and that it can’t be her. The same goes for her father.
Quietly, as Danler realizes the role she needs to play in both her parents’ lives, Stray becomes a memoir about loss. In these moments she asks what it means to lose someone who is still very much alive, and how to rebuild broken bonds. Rootless and in mourning, Danler realizes that in order to usher in the new life she has earned, she’ll have to excavate the one she grieves.