This is the third book by Cheryl Strayed that I’ve read in the last few months, and I resisted reading it for awhile. I read and loved Wild before Oprah brought it to national attention, although it was a review in O magazine that first got me curious about the book. It was, however, my friend Katrina’s excitement about the release that really convinced me to pick it up, because I trust Katrina’s opinion more than Oprah’s. Anyway, they were both right — it was a great book.
Then it was Katrina again who tipped me off that Strayed had written a novel long before Wild. This was Torch, which I also read and enjoyed, and I have no idea why it never seems to get talked about in any of the publicity that’s currently surrounding this wonderful author. (If you watch, for example, her long and detailed Oprah interview, you would come away with the clear impression that Wild was the first book she ever wrote and the first time she’d ever addressed the tragedy of her mother’s death in writing — when in fact Torch deals with the same story, the impact of a woman’s death on her husband and young-adult children — in fictional form). I’m sure there are other readers, like me, who have been led to Torch through their love for Wild, but I don’t understand why it’s not being talked about more.
All of this discursive history leads me up to the moment when I bought tiny beautiful things. In the same year that her memoir became a huge bestseller, Cheryl Strayed also revealed that she was the previously-anonymous advice columnist “Dear Sugar” on a website called The Rumpus. Since I’d never read the site, all I knew was that people were saying her advice columns were amazing — not so much Dear Abby as Dear Person-Who’s-Unflinchingly-Honest-and-Self-Revealing-and-Uses-the-F-Word-Sometimes — and that a book of her collected columns was coming out just a few months after Wild hit the stands.
At first I wasn’t overly interested in reading it. Advice columns? Really? But finally I got intrigued, and not only did I buy it, as I had done with Wild and Torch — I bought an actual, physical, hard copy. I buy very few paper books but somehow just felt this might be the kind of book where I would want to flip back and forth through the pages, and maybe lend it to someone else when I was done.
Really, out of the three Cheryl Strayed books I read, this one, the one I almost didn’t read, is the one that really tore me up. Her writing is just so brilliant and beautiful here, as she addresses the people who write in to her with so many complicated issues. She doesn’t write as a professional counsellor — advice columnists rarely do — but as a person who has lived, suffered and learned, and also as a writer who is used to thinking about how people are put together and what makes them tick. And she writes it all with such clear, burning prose, hammering home over and over the message that the only truly wrong thing you can do with your life is live it dishonestly.
I don’t always agree with the advice Sugar gives to every reader. But I always admire the spirit in which it is given, and Strayed’s own willingness to say, “Here’s what happened to me, and while it’s not the same as what happened to you, here’s what I think you should learn from it.” She’s blunt, she’s funny, she’s heartbreaking and she’s never forgettable. As I read I was not only applying so much of what she said to my own life but was also thinking of other people who would love the book, which means that some of my Christmas shopping this year might already be done. In case you’re not on my Christmas list, and if you don’t mind the odd swear word, you should go pick up a copy of this book. You’ll thank me later.