Simon & Schuster, 304 pages, $27
Small talk is for the birds. The conversations that help us become more enlightened or evolved or liberated are — rightfully — big. (Breezy chitchat about weather patterns rarely changes lives.)
In Let’s Talk About Hard Things, Anna Sale makes the case for just that: There’s value in tackling the tough stuff we tend to shy away from, such as mortality, intimacy, and finances. Speaking of which, Sale is the creator and host of the WNYC Studios podcast “Death, Sex & Money,” where she conducts affable yet probing interviews with everyday folks and well-known figures about private subjects such as illness, grief, cheating, divorce, one-night stands, shoplifting, and student loans. She asks her interviewees “about the hardest, loneliest things all of us go through, in the hopes that others might listen and feel less on their own,” she writes.
Sale is an empathetic listener and a thoughtful interviewer. It’s easy to get swept up in the audio program, struck and stirred by the honesty Sale extracts from her guests. A particularly memorable episode — Sale called it “This Senator Saved My Love Life” — is set in the kitchen of the former Wyoming Republican Senator Alan Simpson. He and his wife, Ann, offer advice on love and partnership (“The secret is, you both try to control each other, and you both fail. And it’s critical that you both fail,” says the man who memorably questioned Anita Hill in 1991). Their insights weren’t just for listeners’ benefit: The pair also played a pivotal role in Sale’s own romantic life.
The idea for the podcast, which began in 2014, sprang from a series of deep talks Sale had with family, friends, co-workers, and mentors after her first marriage unraveled. The concept for the book evolved from the podcast, and it’s impossible not to compare the two. In writing, Sale’s aim “is to open up that buried passageway between us, to let us connect and understand our lives more clearly.” By seeking out and sharing profoundly personal stories from a variety of sources, along with expert insights and Sale’s own dilemmas and doubts, she hopes to help readers “navigate life’s rocky territories” and embark on necessary conversations, no matter how awkward or terror-inducing they might be.
Does she accomplish what she set out to do? Mostly. The text is a compelling exhortation to have difficult discussions. But perhaps not as compelling as the podcast. (Sale conducted a fresh set of interviews explicitly for the book, though readers will find a handful of references to stories originally featured on “Death, Sex & Money.”) While the recorded episodes are fluid and seductive, like overheard, heady conversations, the book is staccato, full of exposition, transitions, and summaries that can detract from the potency of the narratives. It’s a shame, as many of the stories are quite fascinating, such as a lesbian in a religious small town who repressed her sexuality until she began an affair with another married mom, or the man who secretly withdrew $100,000 from a joint savings account and didn’t tell his partner for two years.
Format may be partially to blame.
Let’s Talk About Hard Things is broken into five categories: death, sex, money, family, and identity. Each bucket is its own chapter, containing tales from people who’ve gone through related challenges or traumas and figured out a way to put their hurt, anger, confusion, or longing into words. Every chapter starts with a splash of memoir: Sale recounts the first time she saw someone die, a mortifying exchange with a male OB/GYN about post-baby sex tips, how she met her first husband. These snippets are sincere, self-aware, and satisfying. What then follows is a heap of context (stats, quotes from articles, cultural trends) about why the particular topic is so hard to talk about. Next come the personal tales; above each one is a brief, declarative sentence that captures the subject’s experiences and can serve as a prompt for the reader to initiate these hard discussions (“What I want has changed,” “It’s okay you’re not okay,” “I’m out of options”). There’s a transition between each narrative, as well as several summarizing paragraphs at each chapter’s tail end reiterating what each person learned from heavy-hitting talks. That’s a lot of padding, a surfeit of explanation.
This book may be the most useful for the supremely reticent and emotionally risk-averse among us, those who need much persuasion to utter uncomfortable truths. If you’re already at ease with vulnerability and only need an occasional nudge or recalibration, you can still benefit, but many of the assertions may strike you as obvious.
That said, in her extensive analysis and reporting, Sale encourages nuance. That’s commendable. In the chapter about identity, she highlights the distinction between marginalization and belonging, offering up a more flexible framework through which to consider who we are. (“You may be marginalized in one setting and empowered in another. Noticing when and how that’s changed can tell you a lot about how identity functions in your life. Where do you belong? Among whom? Who belongs where you belong, and who is an outlier?”)
The book also smartly considers not just when to talk but when to listen and when to quit entirely. Sale resists simple answers and asserts that challenging conversations are not cure-alls, even with the best of intentions and tactics. It’s a well-worn message, but one that bears repeating.
“Hard conversations offer you solace and pull you out of isolation. ... But they do not fix hard things,” she writes. “You can give up that sense of pressure, because that’s not the goal. Rather, the goal is to try.”
Amen to that.