Book Review: Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

December 3, 2012 Reviews (14) Comments
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
Published by Vintage on Jul. 2012
Genres: Essays, Non-Fiction
Pages: 368
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased

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 aisle 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.”

  • http://www.aquickredfox.com Renee

    Sounds fantastic! Definitely adding it to my to-read list.

    • http://bookspeakvolumes.wordpress.com Leah

      I hope you enjoy it!

  • http://booksoutsidethebox.wordpress.com booksoutsidethebox

    I totally added this to my to-read list once I finished WILD too. This was a fantastic review, and I’m looking forward even more to reading TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS soon! Thanks!

    • http://bookspeakvolumes.wordpress.com Leah

      If you loved Wild, you’ll really like this as well. She tells a lot of personal stories that make this book almost as much a memoir as a book of advice.

  • therelentlessreader

    I neeeeed to read this! It sounds so good! I’ll get to it :)

    • http://bookspeakvolumes.wordpress.com Leah

      Weeee! It is loverly.

  • http://btweenthecovers.com/ Heather

    I have this waiting for me on my Kindle–I think I’ll read it when I’m finished with the DFW biography. Great review, Leah!

    • http://bookspeakvolumes.wordpress.com Leah

      Thanks Heather :)
      I’m so looking forward to your thoughts on the DFW biography!

  • http://booksandreviews.wordpress.com Elena

    Sounds better than Wild and much more mature. I like the idea of not overworrying about things and making your life yours, although I’m afraid this last piece of advice can go against change. Your life is yours for better and for worse but you can also change it.

    I loved your review and I think it was partly how you described the book partly the quotes that have made me feel at peace (let’s see how much it lasts, I can already hear my dissertation shouting at me). I had just finished writing it for three hours and was all stressed and then I read your review and everything seemed to fall into place, literally: as if objects and ideas were floating in my head and suddenly they fell and left only silence and quietness. THANK YOU.

    • http://bookspeakvolumes.wordpress.com Leah

      Elena, I think you would like this much better than Wild. I can see how that quote might seem like it’s fine to just drift along and let whatever happen happen, but she’s very much for change! There are a few letters in which people wonder if they should leave their partners or their hometowns, and she always says GO! Her thought is that if you want to leave, you should leave, regardless of how it will make the other person feel; you have to follow your gut, and if you’re not ready to be settled down or you want to see the world, you should do it! Her philosophy is that you need to do what’s right for you, and also that’s it’s okay to screw up. Everyone makes mistakes, but the biggest mistake is holding yourself back and regretting it later.

      You would LOVE the column she writes for a class of about-to-graduate students majoring in English; I two of the quotes I used came from that piece, and it really made me feel SO much better about the stress I feel about trying to figure out my future.

      • http://booksandreviews.wordpress.com Elena

        Oh then I should check that letter today, I’ll keep you posted on it, I may be able to check it by midnight.

        I’m an advocate for change (Jesus, this sounds so Suffragist! In a good way) but you’re right. You only change if you want to and if you’re ready to.