“Stray,” out just a few weeks, is already a bestseller. I wish I could say it lives up to my expectations. Some of the essays that seeded the book — such as “Engrams, California,” which received Honorable Mention in Best American Essays of 2018 — were extremely powerful. But I found myself desperately wishing that I was reading a novel so I could expect some kind of plot arc. There is none, unless you consider a head-spinning update in the last 10 pages a story line.
“Stray” is set largely in the period just before the publication of “Sweetbitter,” when the author left her husband, moved home to the West Coast and rented a house that used to belong to Fleetwood Mac. This brought her back into contact with her mother, who had a debilitating brain aneurysm 10 years earlier, and occasioned Danler to revisit very unhappy childhood memories. She carried on an obsessive, passionate, on-again, off-again affair with a married man referred to as the Monster. She was also entertaining the affections of a nicer guy called the Love Interest.
Danler struggles with indecision and unhappiness for the entire book, often quite lyrically — “A door would open up in her, and through it I could see our escape” — until those last 10 pages launch her into a new phase of life.
Despite the author’s skills at observation and phrasemaking, the narrative manages to ping-pong between the two most dangerous possibilities in memoir: boring on one side, TMI on the other. For example, the divorce that initiates the action: Danler insists that her first husband was basically perfect, there’s nothing to tell, she doesn’t know why she left him. Okay, not much of interest there. But the torrid affair with the Monster — so ill-advised that Danler is “ashamed” to give even her close friends updates about what is going on — this she writes up and publishes in a book? One can’t help imagining the Monster’s wife and Danler’s Love Interest getting together to have a little book club about “Stray.” There is so much to discuss.
Danler also struggles to be relatable. “I traveled all over the world and was paralyzed in one conversation with one man,” she writes. In Egypt, in the Catskills: “I’ve walked into people, trash cans, walls, while texting. I’ve been almost hit by cars more times than I can count. . . . My days are made up of intervals of activity between the deluge of texting that starts when I wake and ends when his wife comes home.” As a memoirist, you make a confession like this hoping that the reader will identify with you, and not the people driving the car, or worse, the wife. Danler also manages to both overshare and withhold in a single paragraph. In one scene she recalls a very specific sexual comment (not printable in a family newspaper) spewed in anger. But what is said in response is described rather than quoted: “something unnecessarily cruel, cruel to me, cruel to her, so shocking it’s funny.” Yeah, so, what was it? It sounds like the good part!
The story with her father is even more miserable. An unrepentant addict and liar, he left the family when Danler was 3, and let her down a seemingly infinite number of times after that. One of the only times she’s seen him in the past decade was when he showed up uninvited at a “Sweetbitter” book signing in Portland, Ore., eager to claim a relationship that no longer exists. To say the least. Danler comments on how it makes her feel when one of her friends loses a beloved parent. “And my parents — twin vacancies — just keep living. I want to apologize for how senseless it is.” Man, that is cold.
As the book’s epigraph from Frank O’Hara says, “Now I am quietly waiting for/ the catastrophe of my personality/ to seem beautiful again,/ and interesting, and modern.” Perhaps Danler should have waited a bit longer. Now in her mid-30s, she seems to have entered an exciting new phase of life — the material in this book might have worked better as a series of flashbacks in a more shapely story. And maybe it would have been slightly less concerning and unseemly. If she had waited, the love affair with the Monster wouldn’t have the feeling of fresh gossip we shouldn’t be privy to, and her sense of what should and shouldn’t be included in the book might have been clearer.
Better yet, go back to fiction, where we need her and miss her.
Marion Winik, a professor at the University of Baltimore, is the author of numerous books, including “First Comes Love,” “The Lunch-Box Chronicles” and, most recently, “The Big Book of the Dead.”
By Stephanie Danler
Knopf, 240 pp., $25.95