Half a Life by Darin Strauss

It’s no fun throwing daggers at a flawed book but I spent $22 and a few days of my vacation making my way through Darin Strauss’s slender memoir, Half a Life. A better title would be: Half a Memoir.

At 18, in the last days of high school’s senior year, Strauss drives his buddies to a mini-golf course. Bike rider Celine Zilke, 16, swerves into traffic and collides with Strauss’s car. Celine dies; Strauss is held blameless. Strauss finishes school, goes to prom, attends college, dates a lot of girls, publishes novels, marries, fathers twins…and still can’t shake the ghost of Celine Zilke.

Reduced to its essence, this sounds like an interesting read, right? Add Celine’s mother’s admonition to Strauss, to live doubly, and I’m hooked.

But Strauss’s story is so superficial I felt like I was floating above it instead of getting sucked into it.

I bought the book because I’d liked the first page so much. “The breeze did its open-window work on the hair behind my neck and ears. We had a month before high-school graduation. I was at the wheel.” It seemed Strauss would peel back and explore the magic and misery of high school’s senior year. Nope.

Strauss floats over his life; we don’t know his parents, his sister, his friends, the women he dates and drives away with his awkward retelling of the accident. Wife Susannah is the sole dimensional person.

Most problematic for this tale: Strauss didn’t know Celine, and by the end of the book, neither do we. The dead girl is an object in this story; it becomes grotesque reading about his inability to put Celine, and the accident that caused her death, to rest. On and on and on and over and over again: his grief seems like extreme navel-gazing.

Strauss ties up the story by submitting it to us as his cure. (Ew.) He tells us that victims of “complicated grief” make a tape of their story, listen to it, then put it on a shelf. They own it. This book is Strauss’s tape. Now I own it.

Reading this reminded me of why I avoid most memoirs. They tell the story that was, instead of fiction’s what could be.

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3 thoughts on "Half a Life by Darin Strauss"

  • Darin Strauss says:

    Hi Anne,
    Sorry you disliked the book. I have my doubts about the memoir form, too. This was one story I couldn’t fictionalize, tho. I thought “(Ew.)” was a little harsh, but I have to admit, it’s a fair review.

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