Monday, 20 January 2014

Far from the Tree, by Andrew Solomon

Why I read it: New Yorker Review but this guy was everywhere for a few weeks.

Podcasts: CBC Ideas, but it's just one of many.

Brow: If you're reading it for stories about freaky kids, low brow, but if you're trying to understand the experience of their parents, middle.

Summary: Most parents expect to pass on their way of being happy, or their 'vertical identity' to their children. But what happens when it's impossible to do that? Solomon explores what happens when children are drastically different from their parents in a dozen different ways, from deafness to criminality to transgenderism, so those identities become 'horizontal.' He tells us the personal stories of hundreds of families he interviewed over 10 years while researching the book.

What I liked about it: The book is fantastically written and the stories are well told, whether it's the heartbreaking scene of a mother whose child is the product of rape asking Solomon to tell her how to love her child, or the uplifting stories of parents who become advocates for their children. It's also packed with interesting facts, like that schizophrenia is a developmental disorder, not a mental illness.

What I didn't like about it: The text of the book is over 700 pages, and with footnotes it comes out to nearly 1000 pages. The stories are great, but each chapter is at least 50 pages, and some are nearly 90. It felt like this book could have been tightened a lot and not lost any of its power. Furthermore, although Solomon talks about how people who would have been bad parents become awful parents when they are faced with a child they can't identify with, he gives us almost no stories of people in those situations, and doesn't appear to have interviewed any of them. Perhaps he couldn't get anyone to agree to sit down to an interview about what a terrible parent they are, but it's hard to see how anyone having a horrific time with a similar case to one of these wouldn't feel inadequate. Adding to this is the fact that nearly everyone he profiles is middle class and above, when I imagine it would be much harder for a working-class single mother to find the time and energy to advocate for her special-needs child, but we don't get many of their stories.

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