A deep journey into the lives of parents who have raised children far different from themselves.
Author Andrew Solomon, right, with his husband, John Habich, and their son, George, 3, at home in New York, Nov. 7, 2012. Solomon's new book, "Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity" is about children who are born or who grow up as their parents never expected, a subject he knows from experience. (Gabriele Stabile/The New York Times)
Let us first discuss size. At 962 pages -- including more than 200 pages of citations -- Andrew Solomon's "Far From the Tree" is a mammoth commitment. (Also, in this petite reviewer's experience, a handy booster seat for low chairs.)
"Far From the Tree," subtitled "Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity," is a lyrical ethnography based on this simple premise: It is a struggle to raise a child who is created not in your image but as something starkly different and strange.
Parents expect and take pride in their children's "vertical identities" -- traits such as eye color, language, ethnicity or religion that are inherited or cultivated. These tend to be seen as desirable; they're easy to accept.
But some children are who they are in spite of their parents. Dwarfs born to tall couples; deaf babies to hearing people; children with Down syndrome to Ph.Ds. These children belong to "horizontal identities" that their parents can neither understand nor share.
"Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger," Solomon writes. "The more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity."
Solomon divides the book into 10 "chapters" (Schizophrenia, Transgender, Disability, etc.) and bookends these with sections called "Son" and "Father." In a way, this is Solomon's memoir told through a global lens.
I'm the mother of an autistic son and so I began by reading Autism. This was a mistake. I was disappointed in Solomon's telling of what I saw as my story. It was both too familiar and gratingly off-key.
Betsy Burns? Jim Sinclair? Temple Grandin, again? After I swore I'd slap the next person who uttered her name? It seemed that Solomon had rehashed every bit of autism lore I'd read over two decades. I finished the section aggrieved and depressed.
But the problem was mine, for "Far From the Tree" is precisely not about validating one's own experience. Read from beginning to end, this is a raucous, joyful tribute that exalts all parents who love their alien offspring with molten force.
We meet parents who lift and feed their adult children; mothers who cherish their rapist's children; military fathers who protect transgender sons. And lest this sound too Oprah, Solomon also gives us parents who failed to love, including a mother who gave up her disabled baby rather than burden her life.
In one raw moment, Solomon admits that "despite all the stories I'd heard from parents who found deep meaning in bringing up exceptional children," he didn't want to join our ranks. He prayed for his own son to be normal, like him.
Ultimately, this is the truth that Solomon uncovers: Despite the undeniable value and beauty, none of us desires the exception. The children who fall farthest from the tree also weigh most heavily on our hearts.
Ann Bauer is the author of the novel "The Forever Marriage." She lives in Minneapolis.