Meredith Goldstein has been writing the popular Love Letters column in The Boston Globe since 2008 (in which grilled cheese has become a euphemistic inside joke). But her new memoir, “Can’t Help Myself: Lessons and Confessions from a Modern Advice Columnist,’’ does something much more than just explore her journey into self-help and how it changed her and her readers. Goldstein weaves in a deeply poignant story of her beloved single mom’s stage four cancer, her older sister’s December-May relationship, and her own ever-stumbling love life.
The book opens with her origin story: Goldstein began her five-days-a-week column in her 30s, shortly after a bad breakup left her unmoored. She cheerfully admits she had no real experience with the advice business and was certainly not a therapist. “[R]esponsible mental health professionals don’t give directives based on a four-hundred-word generalization of a problem . . . [T]he real mission was to entertain and engage.” she says.
Of course she does both with incredible sensitivity and tact, but she also opens up the whole helper genre by inviting her thousands of readers (with names like Rico and Hoss) to weigh in as well. Everyone gets to know everyone else even as they crowd-source responses. Most amazingly, some people write in to get responses from other responders, rather than Meredith herself. “Readers, what do you think?” she asks, and her column quickly becomes a sensation.
The organization of the book mirrors that approach. Goldstein devotes the 17 chapters to the issues her readers seem to focus on the most. Should I leave my partner? How do you deal with an ex? Is it ever OK to snoop? Each section alternates autobiographical essays with some of her more fascinating columns and answers.
In one she takes on the question of whether dating someone much older or younger is a good idea. She tells us about the younger guy she was enamored with — right up until she visits his frat house. She comes to realize that she needed someone like him for escape because of her struggle to come to terms with the illness of her mother.
But she also notes that old/young relationships are not always a mistake. Her sister, Brette, a casting director nearing her 40s, falls for a guy in his 20s, a happy-go-lucky hippie glassblower who seems all wrong for her on paper, but exactly the right person in real life. While commenting on letters about “work spouses” — i.e. people you are so close to at work that you might as well be married — Goldstein reveals the story of her deep friendship with a colleague. The reason why it works, she writes, is that there was nothing other than a strong friendship, and that meant there was nothing wrong with their relationship, because everyone needs as many friends to count on as they can get. (Hint: If it’s sexual with work spouse, then there is trouble brewing at home that you need to attend to one way or another.)
Of course, the dilemma that makes your heart ache the most is how to deal with someone who is ill, and Goldstein, having first-hand experience with her mom, is particularly gentle and inspiring. She recalls a worried writer who is afraid of being undatable because of a chronic condition: “[T]he trick [is] to figure out how to see an illness as part of you, not all of you . . . You’re not looking to be someone’s burden. You’re asking nice people to hang out with you and date you. They should be so lucky.’’
Writing the column triggers an evolution in Goldstein. She stops using words like “I think” or “maybe” and begins to realize that advice from the heart is always helpful. “If it is true for others, it’s true for you,’’ she asserts. She begins to realize that some problems don’t have solutions other than walking away, that sometimes it’s friends, rather than romantic partners, who can make you feel safe. The more connections — and the more comments — the better.
At the very end of the book, her mom, so fierce, alive, and funny in these pages, has a crisis, and Goldstein writes her most moving, vulnerable letter to her readers about it. “Now if you don’t mind, help,” she says. And they do.
Wryly funny and deeply moving, “Can’t Help Myself’’ is a misnomer because Goldstein most certainly, with humor and feeling, does. And she helps others too.
CAN’T HELP MYSELF:
Lessons and Confessions from a Modern Advice Columnist
By Meredith Goldstein
Grand Central, 260 pp., $26
Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel is “Cruel Beautiful World.’’