Review of Half a Life: a Memoir by Darin Strauss

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From the back cover:

In the last month of his high school career, just after turning eighteen, Strauss is behind the wheel of his father’s Oldsmobile, driving with friends, having ‘thoughts of mini-golf, another thought of maybe just going to the beach.’ Then, out of the blue: a collision that results in the death of a bicycling classmate and that shadows the rest of his life.

This memoir by Darin Strauss begins with one short, stark sentence: “Half my life ago, I killed a girl.” He then recounts, almost frame-by-frame, the moments leading up to the auto accident that left a teenage girl dead, and changed the course of the rest of Strauss’s life. And it was an accident, a tragic and seemingly random event:

The police, Celine’s biking companion, and the recollection of five cars’ worth of eyewitnesses all conspired to declare me blameless. No charges were filed. A police detective named Paul Vitucci later told the newspaper, ‘For an unknown reason, her bicycle swerved into what you might call the traffic portion of the street, and she was immediately struck by the car. There was no way he’ — meaning me — ‘could have avoided the accident, no way whatsoever’ (p. 29).

I read this book in just one day. It’s a short book, yes, but it’s also gripping. I want to call it a “psychological drama” of sorts. Strauss talks about what happened in the days, months, and years after the accident, in a mostly chronological narrative. But there’s a constant tension inside his head, essentially a tug-of-war between his own feelings, and the way the accident impacts his life, and the overwhelming guilt he feels that someone died, and even though it wasn’t “his fault,” he happened to be the one at the wheel.

Strauss recounts an incident when the whole high school is gathered in the gym for an end-of-year assembly. During the event, the principal begins to talk about the tragic loss of Celine. Strauss writes:

So here was another ritual. As in all rituals, people had expectations about how it should be performed. It was as if every moment at which I could have expressed my real sense of what had happened — my anxiety, confusion, queasy guilt; the Houdini sensation that everyone who escapes blame feels, everyone who has been pronounced blameless — they all worked to obstruct that sense. It was blocked off by a completely different sense, that of other people watching me (p. 65).

Perhaps this example sums it up best: “But I did have a somewhat normal and fun middle-twenties, or at least a multi-faceted middle-twenties. … And I was very mindful that Celine didn’t have a fun or normal middle-twenties, or any middle-twenties at all” (p. 126). Whenever he feels pretty good, he feels guilty about feeling pretty good. His mind tries to protect itself, to keep up with everyday life and move forward, while Strauss is tormenting himself at the same time, with what-ifs, if-onlys, and a mountain of guilt.

To me, the great value in Strauss’s memoir is that he puts the reader inside his mind, to allow us to feel what he feels, to come as close as we can to an awful experience without having lived it ourselves (as most of us haven’t, and hopefully never will). It’s not an apology, not an excuse, but an attempt to tell a whole story as honestly as he can — from his perspective, but with great sympathy for Celine’s family and friends. I think Strauss wrote the book because he had to, that he needed to write his way through the second half of his life, the accident and all that’s come after, to lessen its grip on him and purge the years of guilt. Once he had written it, I don’t know that he needed to publish it — but I’m so glad that he did.

All quotes are taken from an advance reader’s copy of the paperback edition, a Random House Reader’s Circle publication. I received this advance copy through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Many thanks to Random House and to LibraryThing for allowing me the opportunity to read and review this exceptional book.

© All the parts of my life 2008-2015.

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