Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for IdentityFar from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

i picked up this book (with both hands, it’s quite a wristbreaker) because i had read Solomon’s Big Book of Depression (The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression) and found its erudition, scope, and sheer humanity quite compelling. i read The Noonday Demon also because i have suffered from depression, and so it was very germane to my own life.

Far from the Tree is not, fortunately, quite so germane to my life. this book examines the lives of parents whose children are abnormal in one way or another: through deafness, autism, dwarfism, a tendency to crime, schizophrenia, and so on. so while my own son is so far quite enjoyably weird, he is in most respects normal, as that is understood in contemporary society.

a book on this subject could easily have been a carnival freak show, at one end of the scale, or one of those saccharine encomiums to Love (Parental) At All Costs at the other. fortunately Solomon is far, far too skilled, too discerning, and too searching to settle for any easy answers. he interviewed hundreds of families over years to write this book, and the depth of his research, along with the depth of his compassion, make for some agonizing, rapturous, and quite mind-opening reading.

the NYT wrote a very good review of it here; i don’t think i can say it better.

but i will add that while i found this book a very emotionally difficult read in some respects, i also found it to be an entirely rewarding one. Solomon consistently asks the really hard questions about what makes a human, what makes a human normal, how a human is valued or devalued by society, what is gained and lost by society in crushing its odder offshoots. and Solomon not only asks the questions, but answers them in unexpected ways.

one can’t help but approach a nonfiction book these days with some trepidation about its agenda, ’cause there are so few books that begin with genuine exploration that leads to some conclusions, rather than some conclusions that seek their carefully selected supporting evidence. so much nonfiction is just more of the braindead megaphone. “wisdom” is one of those words that’s been co-opted by the greeting card and chicken-soup book industries; i can’t use it without feeling slightly woozy.

but what you cannot miss noticing in this book is a great deal of exploration, of turning a question to all of its facets, and the honest attempt to answer those questions. in the end, what you find is wisdom.