Stephanie Danler is from California. And like much of one dominant image of the state, her words are wet-haired, sandy, and moody beyond even her own sense of belief. After a decade away, spent out East, she returned to California at thirty-one. She had strayed far, to Kenyon College and then on to New York City, where she worked at the famed Union Square Café and pursued an MFA at The New School. She married and divorced. She completed her first novel, Sweetbitter, a sparkling and tormented story about a young woman who becomes absorbed, then buried, in the restaurant world of NYC. Her heroine, Tess, is a student of beautiful food and wine and learns what it’s like to fall for someone you can never have. In Stray, her first memoir, Danler continues to mine her obsessions with desire, ambition, and family tensions. She moves from fiction to nonfiction seamlessly and turns her harsh gaze fully on herself. Danler sets the beauty and horror side by side with the fantasy and reality of being a young adult in flowing prose that borders on poetry.
Danler’s timeline is not linear; it splashes around from one place to the next with sections titled “Colorado,” “Long Beach, California,” etc. Of Los Angeles, Danler writes, “The mountains have always been on fire. . . . Yet Californians build, pick through the ashes of their houses, build again. This I understand: People often act against common sense when they’ve fallen in love with a fantasy.” Always a writer fully absorbed in place, first New York and now California, she deconstructs a location’s elements and the people reflected in many lights and shadows in its waters. In Sweetbitter young Tess radiates the jittery energy of NYC, and in Stray, Danler feels the first pangs of aging and finds herself on the rocky, unstable cliffs of California. She laughs, often cruelly, at the “cheerful amnesia” she has to conjure to live there: pushing away painful family memories and other natural disasters. Danler is sold on renting a cottage in Laurel Canyon that was (allegedly) home to Fleetwood Mac, with its alluring views and promise of danger: floods, landslides, and one sole road in and out.
Family, in all its forms, loud and hidden, draws Danler back west to Los Angeles: back to her depressed and debilitated mother, an alcoholic who suffered a brain aneurysm years earlier, and to memories of her charming, drug-addicted father. Danler’s affair with a married man follows her too, to the spiky waves of the Pacific and all the memories she’s turned her back on, which now come back full force. A rickety pier, crooked homes on a cliff: the land of hope and of make-believe.
She detachedly explains her family’s mixed reception to her return. Her aunt Pam, a “disarmingly, harshly honest” former D.A., always wanted her niece to come back, but now demonstrates no joy, only spits words of caution. She dwells on the negative: drug-addicted musicians of the canyon, the Manson trials, the messy family. Pam also tells Danler directly that Danler’s father is a common cocaine addict whom she’d lock up if she could. At sixteen, Danler had gone to live with her charismatic, entirely unreliable, and selfish father in Colorado to escape her mother’s drunken verbal, then physical abuse. She describes him as “too golden,” the Oxford-educated MBA, working for Ball Aerospace and living numerous secret lives between airports.
Danler sifts through memories, silvery Polaroids, of her young parents, who were dashing and daring; they met at university and studied abroad. Her mother “never intended on being a single mother of two by the time she was twenty-nine, or a barely glorified secretary to a judge, clerking her way through a thoughtless, uninspired forty-hour workweek.” And yet, her mother was so glamorous, she made other kids jealous. “Her skirt hems, her Chanel purses, the cigarettes and hairspray. . . . I know what it’s like to be claimed by the most beautiful woman in the world. She was mine.” Danler rests somewhere between disgust and distracted acceptance throughout.
Now, her mother is weakened, exhausted, and vulnerable. Danler states, “Hurting each other cannot be the sum total of what we mean to each other. . . . Ten years since my mother had a brain aneurysm that left her mentally and physically handicapped. Four years since she started living with a (technically homeless) man she met at Alcoholics Anonymous, and less than a year since her last sojourn in rehab.” While Danler has some hope for their relationship, just below the surface she knows, “Every dream died on her and left a bitter stain.” “She had to ask for her memories back from me. When I recall the times I’ve had steel in my blood, where I wanted nothing but to survive, it’s my grandmother’s voice that comes out in me.” Danler details a history of women in her family: lunacy and brilliance and strength.
As she grew up, Danler found solace in drugs, different schools, partying, and especially, work. She tries in earnest to escape her family’s destructive pathways, but feels the strength of genetic inheritance. “Was that it? The first moment I knew I could burn a bridge and survive?” She lived with friends and depended on no one for financial or emotional support. She writes of her father, “It was not drugs that brought him here. It’s what I call his black hole. It sits behind his heart. It has been threatening him his entire life. Drugs are just one way to pacify it. I know because I’m his daughter. He passed it on to me. I realize during these visits that I have been guarding against it, minute by minute, for my entire life. I’ve touched all its edges.”
In the memoir she also describes close relationships with other women—her younger sister, who is also divorced, and two friends from college, Carly and Alex. Of her sister she writes, “Here we are. Two adult women, both married and divorced before thirty years old, high-functioning self-medicators, eternally anxious, with no idea how to trust ourselves.” Of Carly she writes, “Our lives have diverged so drastically that we’re nearly the clichéd opposite of each other. I know this is a facet of adult friendship.”
Yet, the burning core of Danler’s story is “The Monster,” her married boyfriend who always finds her. Of their relationship, she writes, “Countless times we’d ended it and restarted it. How long have I been in this state of kerosene in the veins, of constant ignition? Casualty of a lust, a rabidity, a purity that burns through all the detritus? The rest of our lives were the detritus.” She’s divorced and a cheater, and the men she meets find these parts of her irresistible. She moves forward, but this relationship feels like feet sinking in sand. Growing up in Seal Beach, Danler and The Monster knew each other as kids before she moved to Colorado. He married right out of college. Then he fortuitously walked into the NYC restaurant where she worked.
Then, Danler ran across the country, all the way to California, and upon waking up each day in Laurel Canyon, she performs the same “lunatic chores.” She writes, “I check the weather in New York City. I test out some statements about myself to start the day: I wrote a novel and it will be published. I stopped waiting tables. I can afford to live by myself (something at thirty-one, I’ve never done). The Monster and I are in love. I’m in love! I try to say to myself. I can never deliver that exclamation point. I’m not twenty anymore.”
Danler’s story is one of enduring bravery through deep pain and the darkness and light, of the green life that’s in the depth of illness and on the edge of death. She had the courage to pursue known pain once and again and to share the uniquely horrifying and lonely experience. When describing the experience of watching her mother sleep, she comes to understand “that to love is neither exhilaration nor safety, but instead this: painful, too tender, forcing a forgetting that’s close to forgiveness.” In the end, her reward for her struggle against the present and searing honesty is clarity and release and even some form of revenge. The California that was once a rollercoaster at the Santa Monica Pier caterpillaring its way back down toward the waves in the blue dusk is now another road out.
New York: Knopf, 2020. 256 pp. $25.95.