Book review: Half A Life by Darin Strauss

Half a Life: A MemoirHalf a Life: A Memoir by Darin Strauss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 1988, when author Darin Strauss was barely 18, he struck a fellow student, Celine Zilke, with his car. She died.

Now 40, Strauss examines the past 20-plus years with as clear an eye as he can muster. As might be expected in this sort of memoir, he agonizes over the guilt, over whether he has the right to be happy or even to enjoy something as innocuous as a movie at the local cinema. It isn’t easy: Celine’s mother laid a tremendous burden on his back at the funeral by telling him that from this point on, he had to be twice as good as anyone else at everything, because now he had to live for two people. For the rest of his life. Strauss promised her he would.

As Strauss takes us through his life after the accident, he unsparingly points out the perceived flaws in his own behavior: how he prepared speeches, rehearsed facial expressions, tried to give the public what he thought it wanted to see — guilt, despair, sorrow — but he was only a boy. And he was in shock, a shock that remained with him for years, even decades. Strauss went through the critical years of college and into adulthood with a glass between him and the rest of the world, the glass of Celine’s death, through which he filtered all emotion, all relationships, even whether or not he could allow himself to enjoy a fine wine or a beautiful day. Because Celine couldn’t.

I came away from this book feeling more than a little angry with the adults in young Darin’s life. It seems no one who mattered — a parent, a friend, a teacher– ever really sat down and talked with him, tried to see what was going on inside, to help him process such a catastrophic blow to a young life. Oh, they sent him to a therapist, which lasted all of one session. Otherwise, nothing. Eventually, after many years Strauss returned to therapy. This book is part of the result of that therapy.

Darin Strauss has my admiration, not only for his courage in sharing this story, but for the story itself. He’s written a bewildering and hurtful tale in clear beautiful language. There are no easy answers here, no pat responses, no pithy platitudes. Just a powerful story, powerfully told.

Many thanks to LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program for the opportunity to read this book.

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