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tiny beautiful things

Tiny Beautiful Things is the book that every woman is going to read this summer. We look at the reasons why…

Last year a book of ‘internet writings’ was published to initially contained and enthusiastic acclaim. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Someone Who’s Been There is a collection of advice columns that were published from 2010 to 2012 on the literary website Rumpus. Dear Sugar was the pseudonym for Cheryl Strayed, a very modern agony aunt who didn’t dismiss unfaithful partners outright and didn’t treat self-confessed addicts as pariahs. To many Strayed is better known as the best-selling memoirist whose book Wild sold millions of copies across the world. The story of Strayed hiking the beautiful Pacific Crest Trail on her own in an effort to deal with the loss of her mother is set to be released as movie starring Reese Witherspoon. Wild is a New York Times bestseller and this story of a startling and ordinary personal journey led Oprah Winfrey to re-launch her influential book club. However, to some Strayed isn’t the intrepid girl with a backpack, but the only glimpse of light in very dark times.

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Eat, Pray, Love was a flyaway publishing success and was made into a Julia Roberts starring-movie.

While Wild’s success and sales continues to flourish, the past year has seen Tiny Beautiful Things invade book recommendation conversations. It’s achieving cult-like status. To booksellers it’s the new Eat, Pray, Love. But it might actually be more. The Dear Sugar column was a social media success, with heartbreaking stories of human dysfunction detailing the desire for self-change catching like wildfire. The column still enjoys a cult internet following, even after Strayed ceased writing replies and now the book is rapidly rising up the bestsellers lists. (The letters and replies are still available to read for free online and we apologise to all employers for the procrastination we’re enabling…)

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Reese Witherspoon on the set of Wild with Cheryl Strayed.

Each entry is a brutally honest true story. In one letter a father writes in bullet points about the angry emptiness of his life after losing his son to a car accident. He can’t forgive, “I’m a father while not being a father. Most days it feels like my grief is going to kill me, or maybe it already has. I’m a living dead dad.” It is a shocking and incredible piece and Sugar doesn’t really give advice in her reply.  Her reply talks about grief and how it takes root in ‘The Obliterated Place’, which “is equal parts destruction and creation. The obliterated place is pitch black and bright light. It is water and parched earth. It is mud and it is manna. The real work of deep grief is making a home there. You have the power to withstand this sorrow. We all do, though we all claim not to. We say, “I couldn’t go on,” instead of saying we hope we won’t have to. That’s what you’re saying in your letter to me, Living Dead Dad. You’ve made it so fucking long without your sweet boy and now you can’t take it anymore. But you can. You must.”

A photograph from Strayed's time on the Pacific Crest Trail.

A photograph from Strayed’s time on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Most the stories make you stand still. Some will make you cry. Perhaps the reply that put Dear Sugar on the must-read map, and certainly the passage in the book that will make you put the book down to remember how to breathe is where one person writes asking the eternal millennial question:

“Dear Sugar,

WTF, WTF, WTF? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day.

Best,
WTF”

Sugar gets straight to the point. Her grandfather sexually abused her during her childhood. She wondered WTF for years, to no avail. “Ask better questions, sweet pea. The fuck is your life. Answer it.” Pin that over your work desk. Sugar’s constant message is ‘You survive.’ Sometimes if you don’t want to.

What comes across in Tiny Beautiful Things is the life Sugar has live and how important empathy is. When addicts write she talks about her past heroin use. A young woman on the cusp of matrimony worries about marriage and fidelity and Sugar talks about how the love of her life cheated on her during their first year of marriage, “I alternated between sympathizing with him and wanting to punch him in the mouth. He was a jackass, but I loved him dearly.” Real life is a battlefield of fractured relationships, often knitted back together.

Last week New York Magazine examined the burgeoning success of Dear Sugar’s second incarnation. The book is being translated all over the world and fans buy copies in bulk, handing them out like necessary new-age missals. Sugar’s “nonjudgmental real-talk tone” has even prompted one filmmaker to start a Kickstarter to make a series of shorts based on the entries. People don’t want sugarcoating. This is a dysfunctional world, but it is one forever thirsting for compassion.

Buy Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Someone Who’s Been There here.

Jeanne Sutton @jeannedesutun

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