TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS
by Cheryl Strayed
Vintage, July 2012
Paperback, 368 pages
I never thought I would be the type of person to buy a book from the Self-Help section of the bookstore. And yet, a few weeks ago I found myself furtively sneaking down an isle lined with titles such as A Whole New You and The Happiness Code to ease a copy of Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things from the shelf.
I loved Strayed’s memoir Wild when I read it this summer, and when I heard about Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of pieces she wrote for the online advice column Dear Sugar, I decided to set aside my preconceived notions about advice columns and give it a shot. I’m so glad I did.
Strayed, who began writing the Dear Sugar column for The Rumpus anonymously in March 2010 and was revealed as the author in February 2012, turned the advice column on its head. Unlike traditional columnists, she incorporates personal stories about her own life to get her points across — stories that are sometimes shocking (like her grandfather forcing her to jerk him off when she was a small child) and sometimes inspiring, but always brimming with humanity and empathy.
Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of the best Dear Sugar columns, and it is a compelling, moving read. Strayed’s columns are always thoughtful and compassionate, but she doesn’t coddle those writing to her. She can sense bullshit, and if she smells arrogance in a letter she’s not afraid to say so. (She’s also not shy about using foul language, so those sensitive to profanity should be warned.)
“The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of love.”
The columns in this collection cover just about every topic to ever trouble a human, including subjects as broad as acceptance, forgiveness, grief, and jealousy, and as specific as feeling suffocated by students loans, being afraid to leave a partner or the place where one feels safe and anchored, and feeling conflicted about whether or not to have a baby. Both the letters and Strayed’s responses are deeply personal; letter writers describe their deepest insecurities and most shameful moments, and Strayed reveals sensitive things about her past ranging from her mother’s death to her addiction to heroin to her work as a Youth Advocate for at-risk middle school students.
I believe there is truly something — probably many somethings — for everyone in this book. Although there were some letter writers trying to deal with problems I could barely comprehend, there were also many that struck very personal chords with me. I couldn’t relate to some of the problems described in the letters, but each of Strayed’s responses are stunning and eloquent, and each of them gave me something to think about.
“The most terrible and beautiful and interesting things happen in a life. For some of you, those things have already happened. Whatever happens to you belongs to you. Make it yours. Feed it to yourself even if it feels impossible to swallow. Let it nurture you, because it will.”
Although some reviews I have read complain about Strayed’s frequent use of little endearments like “sweat pea” and “honey bun,” they didn’t bother me. I thought they added charm to the pieces, as if Sugar is an elderly aunt who has seen everything and is passing on her wisdom to someone she cares about.
I highly recommend this book — to everyone. To everyone who has ever worried about a friend dating a jerk, felt jealous of another’s success, lost a parent or child, felt the urge to leave, struggled to find forgiveness, felt afraid of being judged, tried to write a book, been on either side of infidelity, had their heart broken, or felt unsure about the future. Do I need to go on?
“You’re going to be all right. And you’re going to be all right not because you majored in English or didn’t and not because you plan to apply to law school or don’t, but because all right is almost always where we eventually land, even if we fuck up entirely along the way.”
Strayed’s columns are compassionate, blunt, human, flawed, moving, and inspirational. So “Let yourself be gutted. Let it open you. Start here.”