Wild by Cheryl Strayed

I first came across Wild when I saw Reese Witherspoon carrying a copy around and some weeks later she posted a picture of the book saying it was “My favourite new book” just to buy the rights and become producer (and possibly main star) to the movie adaptation. The buzz continued as I saw it advertised in many online bookstores and, finally, last week Leah said she was reading it… and I decided to join. I must admit I had my doubts when I started it, having hated Eat, Pray, Love and wondering what it is so especial about leaving everything to “discover yourself”.

The following review contains some spoilers.

From The Book Depository:

A powerful, blazingly honest memoir: the story of an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike that broke down a young woman reeling from catastrophe–and built her back up again. At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State–and to do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker, and the trail was little more than “an idea, vague and outlandish and full of promise.” But it was a promise of piecing back together a life that had come undone. Strayed faces down rattlesnakes and black bears, intense heat and record snowfalls, and both the beauty and loneliness of the trail. Told with great suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, “Wild “vividly captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

I have many times heard of dislocation as a way to explore and challenge one’s values, limits and ideas. Whether this is true or not, I don’t know, I never experienced it, but I can see it is becoming fashionable. Although I partly agree that finding yourself completely alone in an unknown place and without your beloved ones can be challenging, I believe that human beings adapt to their environment. That is, I do not think we discover ourselves in new environments, we simply discover new facets to the person we are: it is like turning around a faceted diamond. There are many faces, you just have to be willing to move it and see them. This is one of the main reasons why I hated Eat, Pray, Love, apart from the constant whining and the topics that only Italians enjoy life and only in India will you find a religious truth.

Having said this, Wild presented itself more like a physical challenge than Cheryl’s desire to escape her life, although I think she had to escape it to avoid becoming a heroin addict dating another heroin addict and constantly playing with Paul, her ex-husband. Her journey was definitely challenging and she got to discover both her physical and psychological strength by testing them and her survival instincts all through the hike. All the tiredness and her focus on moving forward were definitely a distraction to the million problems she already had: drugs, a divorce, a broken family, the death of her mother. However, I kept asking myself: “don’t do other people go through the same without escaping for a whole summer?” Don’t get me wrong, I was happy that Cheryl got away from all her troubles, but there was something in her narrative that made her sound especial, and not in a good way. Also, as Leah noted, she kept insisting that everyone could do what she did, even without previous training and almost relying on the kindness of strangers. I am sorry Cheryl, but things are not like that. Most people (me!) cannot leave their lives to go hiking for a whole summer in the wilderness: first of all because we have lives and secondly and most importantly, because you were 90% lucky and 10% skilled. She also felt that everyone owed her some kind of kindness because she was hiking the PCT in really bad conditions, for example she was angry that the owners of a camping do not allow her to stay there without paying, even when there was no one camped. I may be being too cold, but why should they? If they allowed her, they would have to allow other campers as well! It was due to this behavior, that luckily is not present in every chapter, that I felt Cheryl needed to grow up… soon.

So, when I started pondering the book, a big problem appeared: I knew I wanted to give it three stars out of five (mentally) but I found myself struggling to justify them. All the hiking and the fact that, by the end of the book, Cheryl had really learned things that she should already know made me consider the book in a more positive light, but at the same time these thoughts came to me:

  • She hiked part of the PCT… BUT she gave everything up instead of facing her problems.
  • She lost her mother… BUT many people do and do not cheat on their partners or start a journey to discover themselves.
  • She did drugs and needed to get away from them, it was the 1990’s after all… yes BUT most of my family where Cheryl’s age during the 1990’s and they did not do drugs. Her fault.
  • She was almost broke and could not afford food… BUT so where many other hikers and they did not expect an especial treatment for their very own lack of money. Why should she be different?
  • She missed her mom… yes BUT as much as to swallow the bones remaining from her cremation. REALLY????
  • And don’t get me started on her stupid decision to sacrifice the horse themselves because they did not have money. It was not the poor horse’s fault. I’m sorry I cannot stand people who have animals but then cannot afford their care, even to put them down. They are your responsibility and you owe them some dignity.

Basically, those were my thoughts. I liked and I hated Cheryl at the same time. I admired her for hiking 1,100 miles and, at the same time, resented that she left her husband and ran away from her problems to find herself. All she needed was to stay away from the drugs and to focus on something rather than to linger on how she missed her mom and what a bad wife she was.

This is why I give the book three stars out of five. It was a fun, summer reading and I am happy that Cheryl managed to start a new life.

You can read Leah’s review (sans spoilers) here.

You can read an interview with the author dealing with the issues I had with the book, here.

21 thoughts on “Wild by Cheryl Strayed

  1. Nice review! You made some really good points about her sense of entitlement on the trail that I didn’t look at too closely. And, oh goodness the horse part was so horrific! I died a little reading that section. Why did it even need to be in the book? Cheryl, we get that you’re poor and your life sucks, we DON’T need to read about how many times you had to shoot the poor horse before it died!

    • You named it, Leah: sense of entitlement! I was really shocked to read it. She sounded like a spoilt child believing herself special. I really can’t stand that kind of people, I think they have to eat some humble pie.

      • I was shocked, as well, by her anger at being refused a free campsite. Those people run a business! It was perfectly reasonable for them to tell her she couldn’t camp for free!

        • Exaaaaaactly how I felt! It was as if she expected to be an exception, someone special. But I think her ex-husband and her mother made her believe it.

          By the way, what did you think about her ex-husband? I seriously thought he was too good for her. So, so devoted, he deserved better! I mean, I am adamant about drugs and cheating…

  2. I was really intrigued by the idea of the book, but the more reviews I read of it, the more I think I am going to pass. Hopefully the movie will be better ;)

    • I recommend it for commuting or for just… reading. But I’m sure the movie will be better, although I cannot picture Reese as Cheryl, I find her much stronger, humble and optimistic than Cheryl.

  3. You are very generous in giving the book 3 out of five after what you said about it. I keep away from those books because people who leave everything behind to discover themselves I don’t get. They are still stuck with themselves so they could have found themselves at home if they had just tried harder. Plus, you are right, most people cannot or don’t want to leave everything behind and spend a year hiking or going aorund on a bike or eat, pray and love. All the points you mention make me really dislike that Cheryl without even knowing her or having heard of her before reading your review. I have no time for those people who seem to think just because they do something extraordinary (and even THAT is questionable) they deserve special treatment.
    I’ll keep away from this book.

    • Thanks, Rikki! I agree 100% with what you’re saying about the luxury of escaping, but somehow, I think it is also the only way out some kind of people see and between escaping and staying, they’d better escape! Not that I support it, obviously. I believe we should all be fighters.

      I am glad I made you stay away from this book. I am sure it will be receiving a lot of attention when the movie starts filiming so it is better to know beforehand what it really is about, before the buzz turns it into the movie of the year.

  4. I’m in the middle of the book but it’s slow going because Cheryl is soooooo full of herself. I know it’s a memoir but she is full of herself in a bad way and not in a relating-to-other women kind of way. I get a terrible vibe from this woman and don’t like her at all. But I’ll finish the book.

  5. Pingback: Joy Is…(II) | Dietitian on the Run

  6. I did not like it either, and Eat Pray Love immediately came to mind when I was thinking about Why I did not like it. The disrespect for the Mom really bugged me (remember the scene where they are spreading the Mom’s ashes?), and she doesn’t even acknowledge the Mom in the thanks and acknowledgements at the end. Yep, I agree, this one is a disappointment. I was hoping for more about the PCT itself, but it the book was too littered with Cheryl’s me-me-me bizarre headtrips and self-destructive behaviors. in a word, it just left me “cold”.

        • I literally sat there shocked, and said out loud NO WAY!!! when I read that she ate the ashes. I was like…WHY??? WHY would someone do that??? How disrespectful can you get??? That was just TOTALLY ridiculous. And, in the end, it seemed like she didn’t even learn anything. She basically did her trip, and walked away NOT a better person for having done it. I feel like I need to go do the trip over again, so I can supply everyone with a story that is uplifting vs. Strayed’s serious downer.

  7. Wow, I’m glad I found your review. I am halfway through the book and have had many of the same thoughts and questions on it as you outlined above. The dying mother scene to me was overly descriptive and as such it came off to me as a sort of invasion of the dignity of the mother. In other reviews this is touted as being “brutally honest” blah, blah. Do you really need that? Couldn’t she have been “honest” writing about her feelings rather than give us a breath by breath of the dying mother? It reminds of the reverence of old movies–they would show something like that sideways and not head on and we really truly did get the picture. The horse murder was just that and really when it comes down to it–the horse would have been better off freezing to death “naturally” than to be brutally attacked the way it was in up-close-and-personal gory details. Why did she swoop home at the last moment and take “care” of this anyway? How about caring for the animal BEFORE it got to this sad situation? And, like another comment here–what was the point of this scene anyway? To read gratuitous grossness is not very entertaining and I would clearly hesitate to call this light summer reading. From the comments and other reviews that I have read there is more gross stuff to come. Whoopee. I will finish the book but already I would give it 1 star out of 4. Sheesh. A movie yet! Glad I just have it from the library and have not bought it. Thanks for your review as it was refreshing to at least find someone who has reviewed it that didn’t just fawn all over it and gush what a great read it is.

    • I’m glad you found my review, Laurette. I would not recommend this book to anyone and I cannot see why people like it so much, especially someone well-known as “sweet” as Reese Witherspoon.

      I think it’s OK if you give up books like this one, really. At least it can be read quickly and you don’t feel like wasting your time. Come back when you’re done ;)

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  9. Pingback: Book Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed (4/5) | Taking on a World of Words

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