Five stars, read the first time in 2014, then again in 2015.
This is a book I’m going to read several times in my life. It’s one of my favorites, and I realized that—although I mention it frequently on lists and in recommendations—I’ve never posted an actual review. So I’d like to remedy that.
After finishing the book the first time, I made the mistake of reading the Goodreads reviews. I knew what people had said about Eat, Pray, Love, and I should not have been surprised to see the same sexist nonsense thrown around: that Strayed was “self-absorbed,” “indulgent,” and “left her husband for no good reason.” Because, as we all know, the most unforgivable thing a woman can be is selfish. In the first place, she was a very young woman in the middle of a traumatic life experience, so I think it would be reasonable to not be a dick about her not handling it well. In the second place, here’s a concept to try out: She gets to decide what a good reason is to leave her husband. I mean . . . seriously. Reading her book does not give anyone else a role in their marriage.
I half want to embark on a rambling treatise right now about retiring the whole concept of selfishness, period. Because it only ever does apply to women, if we’re being honest, and because I feel that making decisions based on what you need and want for yourself, not what anyone else wants, is not something a person should apologize for. Many of the reviews I read were just angry that Strayed doesn’t hate herself for her mistakes; they wanted her to have a moment of realization where she discovers that she’s a terrible person, and that never happened. I’m aware that my opinions on this are probably informed by my generational and cultural background—on the older end of Millennial, American—but they were also formed directly by my own experience with religion, politics, and patriarchy. What that experience has shown me is that most people and most social institutions want to dictate how everyone should live their lives, whether it’s in a person’s best interest or not. I’m done living my life according to anything but my own conscience, and I feel very connected to women who are doing the same thing. Contrary to some Goodreads reviewers’ apparent beliefs, doing heroin, having a lot of sex, and not handling trauma well do not make someone a bad person.
Strayed went on a literal journey of self-discovery. It’s right there in the subtitle—finding herself was the entire point, and it’s what makes the book so poignant. If you weren’t expecting all that “navel-gazing,” maybe memoirs aren’t your genre, okay? Unless the earlier printings carried a very different jacket blurb, no one should have gone into this expecting a hiking handbook.
So many people criticized her for not being prepared when she set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, and mostly that baffles me, because she was actually pretty damn prepared for someone who’d never done it before. She’d read her guidebook “a dozen times” before leaving. She’d planned an elaborate system of mailing supply boxes to all the post offices along the way. She organized the little money she had, dividing it up between all those boxes. She took advice from REI employees, and no, she wasn’t psychic, so there was a lot she couldn’t know until she actually got out there. Because that’s how life is, and that’s certainly how something as significant as hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is. Do people not realize that she walked 1100 miles through mountains? Alone, with no cell phone or tablet? In blinding summer heat and also high-altitude snow? Do people reading this book really think that her “lack of preparation” is the point?
I’ve listened to the book twice now on audio, and I think the audio format lends itself especially well to memoirs, although I would also love to pick up a print copy someday. Bernadette Dunne’s narration is perfect—and as long as we’re talking about performances, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of Strayed is also excellent.
As dark and painful as it often is, Cheryl Strayed’s journey is both incredibly moving and impressive. She’s unflinchingly honest about her struggles and failures, opening up about bad choices, traumatic experiences, and learning what she wants out of her life. So few people have ever done what she did, and so few could. This book makes me want to hike the PCT myself, though I know I couldn’t. It makes me want to go back in time and hike it with her. It makes me want to read it once every few years probably for the rest of my life, to experience such an honest, redemptive journey.