Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed is not at all the kind of thing I usually read, but I’m glad I stepped outside of my usual territory to read it, because it’s a beautiful book. For those of you not familiar with her, Cheryl Strayed, who is also the author of the memoir Wild, wrote an advice column anonymously for the website The Rumpus, using the name Sugar. I never knew about the column while she was writing it, but it had a lot of readers. She revealed her identity something like two years ago, and this book is a collection of some of those columns.
Strayed answers all kind of questions — about family, love, friendship, money — and her answers are personal and revealing. She almost always tells stories about her own life as a way of answering the question. I think this is the thing that makes the columns work so well, that she reveals her own struggles and shows her vulnerabilities at the same time that she doesn’t balk at taking an authoritative stance and telling people what she thinks they should do. Her advice is often tough and it frequently takes the form of telling people they need to make major changes and work harder at facing their problems. She by no means coddles her readers. But this is so much easier to take alongside the stories of her own struggles. You feel as though she has earned every bit of her authority and insight.
The columns are so warm, too. My only experience with advice columns before this was reading Dear Abby and Miss Manners a long time ago, and their voices were so much cooler and more detached, and entirely impersonal. Strayed isn’t just giving people advice; she is sharing with the world her hard-won personal wisdom, and you can tell she genuinely feels the pain of the people who write to her. She calls just about everyone who writes to her “sweet pea,” a habit I thought would annoy me, but instead it feels like a kind way to acknowledge the humanity of the people who write to her.
I was reluctant to read the book because I was afraid I would find it too saccharine and I was turned off by the universal adoration it has received. But enough people I respect love it, including the kind of people who are likely to worry about it being too saccharine for their tastes too, so it seemed worth the risk. And it most definitely was.