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Book Review: Tiny Beautiful Things

Jenna Luxon reviews this New York Times bestselling collection of letters to agony aunt 'Dear Sugar'.

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The first article I can remember ever regularly reading in a
newspaper was an advice column. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I’d
imagine around the age of twelve. To be specific, it was Graham Norton’s ‘Agony
Uncle’ advice column published weekly in the weekend section of the Telegraph, which my Mum would always buy on a Saturday. Reading what the national treasure
that is Norton had to say about the nation’s problem each week was a staple
part of my weekend as much as swimming lessons and watching daytime telly.

As slightly sick or twisted as it may seem, there is something
undeniably comforting about reading the struggles of others. From minor inconveniences
to life altering experiences, realising that out there someone has felt
something similar to you just seems to help us humans in times of crisis.

It was perhaps because of these many years reading advice
columns as a young teen, that I was originally drawn to Cheryl Strayed’s New York Times bestseller Tiny Beautiful Things. Between 2010 and 2012 Strayed anonymously wrote an advice column for online literary magazine Rumpus,
under the pen name ‘Sugar’. After leaving her role in 2012 and revealing her
identity, Tiny Beautiful Things was published collating a selection of the
letters and responses given by Strayed during her time writing the ‘Dear Sugar’
column.

When publishing an advice column, I think there are two
major risks you run. The first being that the letters you publish revolve around what
we can term ‘non-problems’. That although the issues written about may be of
great significance to the individual, they don’t represent something many
readers would be able to relate to. They are trivial or petty, they come from
people who are looking to rant more that require advice. The second is that the
advice given is what we shall in turn call ‘non advice’. Advice that isn’t really
advice at all, but instead perhaps offers some compassion but with no practical suggestion
of what the person should actually do.

Tiny Beautiful Things is excellent for many reasons, but if
I had to break it down, I would say it is because of how it successfully avoids
these two potential risks without fail. The letters Strayed responds to contain
real, heart wrenching, and most importantly relatable stories from people truly
wanting help.

And alongside this, Strayed’s responses are equally heartfelt.
Often drawing on her own life experiences to illustrate her arguments, Strayed
is blunt when she needs to be blunt and kind when she needs to be kind. She is
not afraid to tell someone they are in the wrong or tell them to simply get over themselves. In
a nutshell, ‘Sugar’ gives the sort of advice I wish I could be given in difficult
times and also the advice I wish I could give to others.

This book is perfect both for when you’ve got a million
things you could write a letter to Sugar about and for when you haven’t a care
in the world. This is the book to slide across the table to a friend who’s out
of luck but also the book to read when things are sunny. Covering topics
ranging from relationships to unemployment, addiction to abuse, this is
certainly a hard-hitting read but somehow manages not to be disheartening.  Something about the very essence of what an advice column is -someone putting their trust in a complete stranger, is uplifting.

While there’s a lot to stress us out in life and a lot to
cause us pain, what I took from this book is not how much suffering there is
but rather how people get through that pain. It reminded me of the fundamentals,
those lessons taught in pre-school that are too often forgotten as we grow up
and become consumed by the tricky business of adult life. It’s being kind, it’s
looking after each other, it’s trying your best and knowing that’s good enough.

In his introduction to Tiny Beautiful Things, Steve Almond who
was Strayed’s predecessor at Rumpus, writes that this book ‘does the essential
work of literary art: it makes us more human than we were before’. I underlined
that sentence the first time I read it and now coming back to it having finished
this book I can say that I wholeheartedly agree. I like to think that reading
this book at the very least made me a little more compassionate and I like to
think that compassion is indeed a defining feature of being human.

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