During a conversation between Ann Patchett and Reese Witherspoon that I happened upon in my Facebook feed, Ann Patchett, who is co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee, said, “I think the book I sell the most copies of is Tiny Beautiful Things. It’s the universal donor. You got a problem? You want to read Tiny Beautiful Things. “
That was enough incentive for me to purchase the book, especially since I had read and enjoyed Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.
The Introduction is written by Steve Almond, the original Sugar. He writes, “… I conceived of Sugar as a persona, a woman with a troubled past and a slightly reckless tongue. And while there were moments when she felt real to me, when I could feel myself locking into the pain of my correspondents, more often I faked it, making do with wit where my heart failed me. After a year of dashing off columns, I quit.
“And that might have been the end of Sugar had I not, around this time, come across a nonfiction piece by Cheryl Strayed.”
Strayed was reluctant to accept the Dear Sugar gig because she didn’t feel qualified to give advice. So it follows that the thought of turning the column into a book likely didn’t occur to her when she did agree to write for The Rumpus in March of 2010.
Sugar’s true identity was revealed in a “Coming Out Party” on February 14, 2012. Tiny Beautiful Things was published in July that year.
From the start, what set Strayed’s advice column apart from any written prior is her unabashed willingness to expose her history, her stumbles, and her pain for all to witness. One of her early responses to a letter writer, complaining WTF about everything in his life, launched her as a rock star columnist. It reads as follows:
My father’s father made me jack him off when I was three and four and five. I wasn’t any good at it. My hands were too small and I couldn’t get the rhythm right and I didn’t understand what I was doing. I only knew I didn’t want to do it. Knew that it made me feel miserable and anxious in a way so sickeningly particular that I can feel that same particular sickness rising this very minute in my throat.
Ask better questions, sweet pea. The fuck is your life. Answer it.
Although this is a relatively short response, it sets the tone and let’s us know in no uncertain terms that she’s willing to let us into her life, even the not-so-pretty bits. I marvelled at her raw honesty throughout the book. I believe it’s this very transparency that sets Strayed’s writing apart.
The title comes from the last story in the book where a twenty-two-year-old asks, “What would you tell your twentysomething self if you could talk to her now?” What follows is a response as detailed as most of the responses found in this book. I grew to be in awe of the richness of her writing in response to seemingly simple questions.
In Steve Almond’s introduction he concludes, “We need books, and Cheryl’s books in particular, because we are all, in the private kingdom of our hearts, desperate for the company of a wise, true friend. Someone who isn’t embarrassed by our emotions, or her own, who recognizes that life is short and that all we have to offer, in the end, is love.”
And love—tough and otherwise—is exactly what Strayed offers to each person who wrote in for advice and opinions on their dilemmas.
I highly recommend this book. Even as a woman in her late 50s who has experienced her share of ups and downs, many of the stories Strayed shares about herself left me with tears in my eyes because of the depth of her emotions and her gift of expression.