28 July 2011

Review: Half a Life by Darin Strauss

Just one month before Darin Strauss graduated from college, he was driving his friends to the miniature golf course near his Long Island home. They never made it—the afternoon ended in an accident and the death of a teenage girl who had been riding a bicycle.

From the very first sentence ("Half my life ago, I killed a girl.") Strauss holds his head up and owns his struggle to understand what happened and to find a way to live a life that would forever include the specter of Celine, a young girl he barely even knew.

The power of Half a Life lies in Strauss's unpretentious, straightforward approach. He talks about the second half of his life in relationship to the accident the way he might tell the story to his wife or best friend. He doesn't try to fill in the gaps of his memory; he doesn't embellish to make for a better book. He simply writes about that day and the many days after in which Celine was always there and he was never sure if or when or how to let her go.

My accident was the deepest part of my life, and the second-deepest was hiding it. (103)
I know the truth of this story. When I was fifteen, three of my close friends were in a car accident in which one girl died. I remember the looks the driver got when she returned to our small high school and the way that she and her friends (including me) and the other kids were suddenly unsure how to act, even though we had known each other all our lives.

I cannot (thank God) know what it was like for my friend the driver, whom I've lost touch with over the decades, but now I have a hint, a glimpse into what it must have been like. Strauss frankly exposes his inexplicable torment of realizing that he might have gone a whole a day without thinking about Celine: Is that good (am I healing?) or is that bad (am I a cold-hearted bastard?). The guilt whenever he thought about how the accident affected his own life (I'm so selfish, what about her parents?). His need to find fault, forgiveness, closure . . . something, when there may have been no fault, no one to forgive but himself, and no closure but the acceptance that it's okay to be alive.

In the end, Strauss shares some of his life lessons, lessons that likely come easier to those of us who haven't been haunted; nonetheless, they are worth learning. These are the passages you underline, even though you never write in books. Strauss finds the truths, and the beauty of his words embrace you.

Strauss said that going to Celine's funeral "was—and remains—the hardest thing I've ever had to do," but I think it was writing Half a Life.

Half a Life at Powell's
Half a Life at Book Depository
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Published by Random House, 2011
ISBN-13: 9780812982534
YTD: 70
Source: Review (see review policy).
Rating: A-
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


Sandy Nawrot 7/28/11, 7:26 AM  

In my mind, I thought this was fiction. Seriously, God bless this guy for working to get past this. We had something like this happen in our school too, and those survivors were never the same, physically or mentally. And there was nothing any of us could do to understand what it felt like to be them. Excellent review.

Julie P. 7/28/11, 7:57 AM  

I read another book by Mr. Strauss and loved it! I can't wait to read this one! Maybe I'll just move in up in my TBR pile after reading your review.

bermudaonion 7/28/11, 8:59 AM  

Wow, that sounds like a powerful (and brave) book.

natalie @book, line, and sinker 7/28/11, 9:03 AM  

i'd really like to read this book despite the difficult subject. we had a similar situation at my high school and the girl who was responsible for the accident that claimed the life of her boyfriend ended up leaving our school for another. she just never came back after the accident. i always wondered what happened to her and couldn't imagine the suffering she endured--the boy who died was her boyfriend. i wonder if this book is one i could use (or excerpt) in my classroom. i'm forever warning my students about safe driving. thank you for this review--i'm going to pick up half a life.

Eleanor Brown 7/28/11, 9:41 AM  

Darin is a beautiful writer in general, and I loved this book in particular. I heard him on NPR ("This American Life"?) doing sort of an essay version of this, and it was excellent. So glad you enjoyed it as well.

Barbara 7/28/11, 10:11 AM  

The tragedy of his teen years would be impossible for some to get over. We all make terrible mistakes in high school and regret them, but his courage in facing it down and even writing about it is admirable.

Beth F 7/28/11, 10:26 AM  

What's interesting in this case, and I should have stated it more strongly, is that there was no blame/fault, and there was likely little he could have done to avoid the accident.

Zibilee 7/28/11, 12:18 PM  

Like Sandy, I also thought that this was a fictional book, but upon reading your review, I see now that it's not. I think that seeing things from this perspective would be rather eye-opening, especially in light of the fact that Strauss had to go back and face the repercussions of the accident, and face the mental scars that the accident left him with as well. It sounds like quite a powerful read, and if it had you wanting to highlight passages, I can imagine that it might be something that I would also really get a lot out of. Thanks for the very thoughtful and enticing review. Though I hadn't paid much attention to this book before, I will be reading when I can.

Susanne 7/28/11, 12:36 PM  

I added this book to my to-read list after I heard his interview on NPR, but I'd forgotten about it. I'll have to move it up my list. Thanks for the review.

Audra 7/28/11, 2:12 PM  


I don't think I could read this but it sounds marvelous -- honest without being grotesque. I can only imagine what it feels like to survive something like this -- and clearly, this isn't so uncommon. Honest exploration of topics like this are so important for healing and I appreciate that Strauss went there in this book.

caite 7/28/11, 2:13 PM  

I read about this book somewhere else and did not think I would like it...but now I believe I was wrong..

hey, maybe I can get it at the Borders Going Out of Businees sale

Veens 7/28/11, 4:21 PM  

It has to be the worst nightmare. I really want to read this one..it sounds so powerful.

Kailana 7/28/11, 4:40 PM  

I am curious about this one. I will have to check it out!

Eleanor 7/28/11, 5:44 PM  

I have picked up, and put down, this book more times than I can count. Your favorable review may tip the scales for me. Thank you.

Kate/High Altitude Gardening 7/28/11, 7:37 PM  

Wow. Powerful stuff. On my shallow days, I always dream of writing a novel. But, then I read certain books (this sounds like a goodie) and think... no way.

Jenners 7/28/11, 9:02 PM  

This was a powerful read. I felt very similar to what you did ... that it was such a good thing that he didn't embellish things and showed just how tortured he was by this experience and how it affected everything about him. It was a difficult lesson to learn, but I'm glad he was able to put it into words and work through so much of this and share it with the world. It did take a lot of courage.

By the way, I'm just back from vacation and only leaving one comment for everyone to help me catch up with everything. Thanks for understanding.

Paula Kiger 7/28/11, 11:13 PM  

As I mentioned to you on Twitter this morning, I wasn't sure why I had received an ARC in the mail but I'm never one to turn down a book! This book was well written and there was no time when I did not feel that I had a clear sense of what the author was feeling (and that's not easy to do). Especially when he goes to a movie right after the death, and intentionally goes to a different town, hoping for a bit of anonymity. That completely echoed my experience when a classmate died and our whole class went to the science fair (it wasn't a science class) as a "distraction" (it didn't work). As a reader, I wanted to shake the adults in the situation and make them realize that the author had not reconciled the utter lack of blame with the very strong feelings he clearly harbored for all of his young adulthood.

ibeeeg 7/29/11, 10:15 AM  

Wow! This book sounds emotional. I am not really one for non-fiction and other people's life stories but this one has grabbed my attention. The fact that you and other commenters feel that the author conveyed his feelings/thoughts well without trying to embellish has put this book on my list of those I want to read soon.

Thanks for putting this one onto my radar.

Lisa Cron 7/29/11, 11:47 AM  

I've wanted to read this book since I heard him on NPR -- this is a perfect reminder, thanks! What struck me about your post is how a single line of text -- the one you pulled from page 103 -- can sum up the heart of an entire book, and instantly make you want to read it. Strauss' statement reminds me of James Pennebaker's research showing that keeping a secret can be as emotionally damaging as the event itself.

BookGeek 7/29/11, 5:00 PM  

This sounds incredibly moving. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Erica 8/1/11, 11:22 PM  

My favorite line of the book had little to do with the accident.

"That's the meter you come up with, as you approach forty. If your relationship fills you with a sense of luck, you've chosen well."

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