Sunday, May 5, 2013

Review: Andrew Solomon's Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity

First off, I borrowed this book from the library.  I read this book for free!  How amazing is that?  I am really loving the library and trying to get in the habit of requesting books online as soon as I see something interesting.

I was telling someone how much I "enjoyed" this book, and he expressed surprise that I would use that particular word to describe my experience of a book that is about, among other things, children with severe disabilities, children conceived during rape, and children who become criminals.  The topics covered in the book are challenging, but Solomon has a thoughtful approach.  One of his central points, is the diversity and complexity of parental response to atypical kids.  While many parents go through a period of mourning and/or experience day-to-day hardships, they also find joy and meaning in their lives with their children.  He also explores atypical identities that bring individuals pride and joy, and those that bring burden, suffering, or shame.

This book is 702 pages of narrative, with another couple hundred pages of notes, which made me incredibly happy.  Usually non-fiction is just too short and I'm left with a million questions.  Solomon does a great job including multiple stories that illustrate his point about the diversity of experience.  However, I'd be very surprised if his editor didn't try to make him cut it down and tighten it up.  Solomon opens with the overarching theme of the book--the idea of horizontal identities, that is, identities not inherited vertically from a parent and instead tie the child to another identity group to which his/her parents don't belong.  At various points in the book, this theoretical center slips away, overwhelmed by the power of individual stories.  I was fine with that slippage, I love big, messy books, but I could imagine some readers finding in frustratingly meandering, particularly in the second section of the book.

Solomon is a gay man and a gay dad.  At the beginning and end of the book he talks about how these identities shaped his own life.  On pages 692-693 (if you're reading on a Kindle you're SOL) he describes so many of the feelings I had as a lesbian-mom to be (regret at not being able to have a child that was genetically related to both me and B, uneasiness with the fertility industry) that I would like to just photocopy those two pages and hand them out to anyone starting the process or asking me nosy questions on the bus.

If you are someone who likes non-fiction, particularly medical non-fiction, and enjoys a mix of personal stories and theory, I highly recommend this book.

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