With the success of her novel, Sweetbitter, which spawned a television series, it might seem like Stephanie Danler has led a charmed life. Anyone who reads her fierce, unsparing memoir, Stray, however, will be quickly disabused of that notion.
From a rental house in Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon where some members of Fleetwood Mac may have once lived, Danler ranges over the whole of her life as the daughter of two parents who failed in the most essential task: providing their offspring with a safe and loving home. Danler’s mother’s alcoholism is complicated by her near death from a brain aneurysm in her 40s, forcing Danler to confront her obligation to care for someone who repudiates her attempts at care. Her father, who abandoned Danler when she was 3 years old and later brought her into his Colorado home when she was 16, spirals toward ruin in the grip of an addiction to crystal meth, his life a cloud of lies and neglect. Out of this “veritable sea of alcoholism and narcissism,” Danler is flung ashore, ill-prepared for the demands of adulthood.
As if the struggles of her parents’ illnesses and addictions aren’t painful enough, in the wake of her own short-lived first marriage, Danler also finds herself in a destructive affair with a married man she nicknames the “Monster.” As she oscillates between the seemingly irresistible pull of her desire and her understanding of the toxicity of that relationship, she simultaneously draws closer to another man she calls the “Love Interest,” whose self–imposed mission is to introduce her to some of the bleaker features of Los Angeles’ landscape, like a lake that’s turned into a dust bowl, “yet another god forsaken place.”
In Danler’s evocation of California’s complicated history and the darkness that lurks under its sunny exterior, Stray brings to mind the work of Joan Didion, and her frank portrayal of the nightmare of addiction is akin to Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering. But in its painful candor and hard-earned wisdom, Stray is every bit its own vivid creation.