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Cheryl Strayed
Atlantic Books

This book was enthusiastically recommended to me by a friend, who said that it was potentially life-changing and empowering.  Many readers seem to think so; it was voted best memoir on Goodreads in 2012 and has gained many fans and five star ratings.

The back cover blurb describes it as follows:

At 26, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family disbanded and her marriage crumbled. With nothing to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to walk 1,100 miles of the west coast of America – from the Mojave Desert, through California and Oregon, and into Washington State – and to do it alone. She had no experience of long-distance hiking and the journey was nothing more than a line on a map. But it held a promise – a promise of piecing together a life that lay in ruins at her feet.

My own interpretation would be slightly different.

I got the sense that the reader is meant to see this as a work of great maturity and wisdom.  However, I didn’t.  It seemed to me to be a manifesto for narcissistic, self-centred irresponsibility.

Although the opening section of the book, describing the death of Cheryl’s mother, is very sad, it is hard not to feel annoyed with someone who has so little regard for other people’s feelings.  Yes, Cheryl found bereavement very difficult to deal with, but perhaps the other members of her family did too.  And perhaps her husband also felt somewhat upset at being divorced for no good reason: with Cheryl not so much losing a husband, as throwing him away.

There were many eye rolling moments in this book for me, but her description of the finalisation of their divorce, and this exchange with their notary, made me want to shake her:

“…It’s all my fault.” I said, my voice swelling and shaking. “He didn’t do anything.  I’m the one.  I broke my own heart.”

I broke my own heart.  No mention of her husband’s heart or how he must have felt, ever, not once in this memoir.  It’s all me, me, me. (Cheryl likes to repeat things thrice for emphasis , e.g. we “kissed and kissed and kissed”, it’s one of her stylistic quirks).

Cheryl hiked most of the Pacific Crest Trail, though bypassing much of it and travelling by car some of the way, sometimes alone, but quite often with other people.  Not having made any sensible preparations for her journey, she also quite frequently had to rely on the kindness of strangers during her foolhardy quest.

It could have been written as a straight travel memoir and would perhaps have been interesting, but her desire to impose a higher meaning on the experience really irritated me.  It meant that although she must have been hiking through some of the most beautiful wilderness in the world, I felt as though we were in a bubble.  Or that Cheryl hiked with a mirror held constantly in front of her face, so that all she could see was herself.  The people she meets along the way, merely function as mirrors to reflect her glory back at herself, and so that the reader can see what an attractive, sexually desirable, awe inspiring woman she is.  It gets very tedious indeed, especially if you don’t happen to think she’s a very likeable person.*

*Spoiler – Cheryl passed the point of no return for me, when she described persuading her brother to shoot dead her mother’s horse, in an extremely inhumane attempt at euthanasia.  I found this passage sickening and a further example of what a heartless fool she is.

It couldn’t be more different to the other travel memoir I’ve been reading in parallel to Wild – Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar.  There is much to be said for Theroux’s writing style, which does not over-share, moan about physical discomfort or focus solely on the author and his feelings.  I’m about half way through and can’t wait to get back to it.