This book will break your heart. It broke mine. How can a collection of advice column questions and answers have such power? It’s all Sugar. By now, everyone knows that Sugar is actually the author Cheryl Strayed. This does not alter the fact that I think of her as Sugar, as an entity all her own and full of good words for very troubled people. I so desperately want to write to Sugar myself, though I know she no longer “exists” as that person. I want to tell her that when I picked up a cheap electronic version of this book, I was expecting something cute and heartwarming and maybe occasionally funny but got so very much more. The pain and confusion that she was able to sift through, both hers and others, is astonishing. And it is helping me sift through some of my own.
I know there are readers that didn’t like that Sugar spent so much time sharing her own stories, but I think her bravery in revealing so much about herself is what gave her responses so much power. To know that someone comes from a place of understanding and experience is important when you reveal your most troubling or shameful self, even pseudonymously. It doesn’t hurt that Strayed/Sugar is a beautiful writer, and her words are brimming with compassion and heartfelt sympathy.
The letters collected here are just a tiny drop in a large bucket of life experiences, but it feels like they cover a little bit of everything. The father who is overwhelmed by grief at the loss of his son; the daughter failed by a miserable father; the man who believes himself to ugly to ever be loved; the mother who wants to help her children but also wants them to become capable adults; the gay son who has been hiding his life and must be true to himself; and dozens of others facing choices that are unfair but unavoidable. Most of these people know the answers to their questions, you can often hear it in the way they word their letters. More often than not, Sugar doesn’t give just her own advice, but helps them root through the words they have written to discover the answers that are already there. And her responses are never couched in aphorisms or armchair psychology- they are raw and straightforward and unflinching. They are the kind of words we need to hear, even we don’t want to hear them and we’re trying our best to dance around them. They are indeed tiny, beautiful things that can make a world of difference.