This compilation of advice columns was recommended to me by my 25-year-old daughter, the same daughter who introduced me to Cannonball Read and whose taste in literature I admire 99% of the time. Not a devotee of the chicken soup series, I was—to put it mildly–reticent to read something subtitled “Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar.” But after reading one question to “Sugar” and her reply, I was totally hooked. “Sugar” is the name taken by Cheryl Strayed, best-selling author of the memoir “Wild,” and a straight-talking, funny, scarily honest practitioner of what she likes to call “radical empathy.” Sugar could be described as a long-overdue antidote to Dear Abbey.
The people who write to Sugar sometimes have scorching secrets of infidelity, betrayal and abuse, others have adolescent fantasies and delusions, and still others suffer paralyzing grief and loss. Every question that Sugar answers is treated without judgement, as part of the human condition, and she is tender and compassionate without being sentimental or preachy. She steps into the lives of those who write to her and in her replies, she bares her own soul.
To a woman whose child died, Sugar doesn’t offer the platitude that life goes on and the pain gets less. Instead, she tells her the stories of young poor and horribly abused teenagers she once worked with, whose suffering she could not erase, and how she learned that what they ultimately wanted to hear from her was not the lie that things would somehow get better, but that they should draw on their own inner resources to endure, to survive their condition, to live through it, to fight their way out of it, and to emerge healed on the other end. Her advice also to the grieving mother.
To a woman who discovers that her boyfriend secretly trys on her underpants and is too stunned to talk to him about it, Sugar tells the hysterically funny but also poignant story of her first month of sex with her soon-to-be-husband who spanked her because he thought it turned her on, while she tolerated it because she thought it turned him on. Neither was enjoying it, and once they got up the nerve to communicate about it, she dubbed it “our own pornographic Gift of the Magi”—each of us making a sacrifice that nullified the gift of the other.” If you’re each willing to communicate with the other about your “sexual selves,” advises Sugar, you’ll get past the paralysis of embarrassment and humiliation of the situation, and into the realm of honesty, “a place from which you can proceed.”
Her columns address the sublime, the ridiculous and everything in between, and while I’ll confess that I went through several boxes of tissues before reaching her last column, I also came away with a huge “girl crush” on this courageous woman with a beautiful soul. Thanks, Sugar.