Writing to receive advice from a public advice columnist is like pushing your mangled and so personal ware at a market: humbling yourself to the appraiser, you lay out your messy tale of fated tryst and betrayal. The advice-giver then doles out counsel, trying hard but failing to mask a sense of superior virtue.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar (Vintage Books) bucks this given. Published in early July, the book is a collection of advice columns written by Cheryl Strayed, columnist for online culture magazine The Rumpus’ Dear Sugar. Going by the nom de plume Sugar, Strayed calls on her tumultuous past to craft responses with a memoirist’s fleshy touch; that is, the columns that compose Tiny Beautiful Things are more personal essay than appraisal, and Strayed answers her readers’ problems by divulging first the tragedies of her own life.

Take for example, the letter in which a reader laments his feelings of inadequacy when his fiancé fails to cope with her mother’s death; Strayed prescribes action before disentangling herself from her advice: “Ask about her mother sometimes without her prompting,” she writes. “That’s what Mr. Sugar has done for me. That’s what some of my friends and even acquaintances have done…It’s been more than 20 years since my mother died.”

It’s a slippery knoll that Strayed crosses. Should her personal device lapse into the self-indulgent, the taste would be bitter (readers share their hurting selves!); luckily, she avoids the fall. Strayed is careful to keep her personal tales short (and Sugary sweet), and like saccharine bullets, the biographical mentions pump Strayed full of genuineness; because her pain is palpable, so is the reader’s, and their exchange spins out on level ground.

It’s not just what Strayed does though that makes Dear Sugar unique, but how she does it. Strayed relies on a loving, but above all brassy tone; imagine a finger-wagging Nan who loves you with all her heart but refuses to watch your life-ruining decision play out. The result is a basket of no-nonsense quips that have garnered Strayed something of a cult following: fans can purchase Dear Sugar merchandise on The Rumpus site, including ceramic mugs, T-shirts, and posters across which sashay the most memorable Sugar-isms: “[W]rite like a motherfucker”; “Art isn’t anecdote”; and “Forgiveness doesn’t just sit there like a pretty boy in a bar.”

Strayed may never have become Sugar though if it hadn’t been for American essayist Steve Almond. In his introduction to Tiny Beautiful Things, Almond explains how it was he who first authored Dear Sugar for The Rumpus. He admits imagining Sugar and her unique voice as artifice: “I conceived of Sugar as a persona, a woman with a troubled past and a slightly reckless tongue.” He was forced to fake his way, relying on wit rather than heart. After 26 columns, Almond approached Strayed. Keeping Sugar’s “slightly reckless tongue,” Strayed began to craft the column, bedaubing Dear Sugar in her own “troubled past” — a dying mother, an absent father, and heroin abuse.

These topics — the aches of Strayed’s life — she takes on most openly in Wild, her memoir published earlier this year that inspired Oprah to re-launch her book club. Released before Tiny Beautiful Things, but not before Strayed had established her Dear Sugar fan base, the book follows her 1,100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, and the physical and emotional strain that it takes to find healing.

Tiny Beautiful Things, because it is a collection of punch-packed nuggets, has its shortcomings, and after a while Strayed’s tone and time-release biography tend to cloy. She doesn’t veer often from her own stories, and though Strayed mixes the pace, she doesn’t do so enough. In some responses, she shares her story at the head — like when she opens her letter to an apathetic reader who writes “WTF, WTF, WTF? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day,” with a plain narration of sexual abuse at the hands of her grandfather: “My father’s father made me jack him off when I was three and four and five. I wasn’t any good at it.”

Other times she weaves her tale in later, using it as first-hand evidence of her advice’s success. The effect is the feeling of being jammed; because Strayed uses these two frameworks, it is difficult to resist predicting which device she will employ: Will Strayed materialize at the bow or the stern?

Regardless, Strayed’s reliance on storytelling is important for concerns outside of the reader’s experience. Dear Sugar is her insistence upon literature’s basic truism — that by excavating a story, we can unearth an answer to one of life’s questions. The idea drives the book’s organization as well. Tiny Beautiful Things is broken into five parts, each titled with a Sugar-ism, as are the letters that appear beneath each section. The chosen titles appear to thematize the work, and a hopeful reader justifies the chapter titles as delegates for the problems that pervade the included letters; unfortunately, the themes and the thinking behind the inclusion of certain letters, is unclear. Therefore, Tiny Beautiful Things lacks movement; it pools into a staid collection of nothing more than example after example of Sugar’s tone and Strayed’s troubled life content.

At a morsel-level though, she shines, as can be seen in the letters of Part II, which is entitled “Whatever Mysterious Starlight That Guided You This Far.” The section includes a woman who walks in on her boyfriend wearing her underwear and wants to talk to him about it, Strayed responds with an intimate account. She writes, “The first time Mr. Sugar spanked me we’d been lovers for a week.” And then there’s the mother whose child is undergoing life-threatening surgery as she struggles to maintain hope for a positive outcome. Sugar coos, “It’s no surprise you have such doubt in this moment of crisis, sweet pea.”

Both readers have lost faith either in themselves or an outside power. The Strayed-Sugar composite pushes them toward their “mysterious starlight,” and in these individual letters Strayed is gorgeous. Tiny Beautiful Things grants readers the space to find in Strayed’s dejected parts, the power of a stranger’s story. As a whole, this becomes tiresome. Read in parts, it’s a slice of you’ll-be-fine-we’ll-all-be-fine cobbler.

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