Far From The Tree by Andrew Solomon

Far From the Tree Andrew Solomon Disability Identity Wellcome PrizeWinner of the Wellcome Book Prize in 2014, ‘Far From the Tree: Parents, children and the search for identity’ is Andrew Solomon’s account of “ordinary people making courageous choices”. It is a densely written and detailed study which examines the links between identity and disability and the challenges faced by those perceived to be “different”. Divided into ten main topics, the first six (deaf, dwarfs, Down’s Syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, disability) focus on “horizontal” categories typically classified as illnesses, while the other four (prodigies, rape, crime, transgender) are “vertical” identities which are assumed to be socially constructed.

Even though I didn’t go to Andrew Solomon’s talk at the Hay Festival last year, I was intrigued by what I’d heard about ‘Far From the Tree’ and I bought a copy at the festival bookshop. I read the first four chapters over the Christmas holidays, then put it down for nearly three months, and then read the rest of it in between other books on the Man Booker International Prize longlist. Even with non-fiction, I very rarely put books down and come back to them weeks or months later but I was able to do so with this one. For me, it’s a book that is best read and absorbed in small parts, otherwise the scale of Solomon’s ambition could easily become overwhelming.

The wide range of topics addressed in ‘Far From the Tree’ meant I learnt a lot about all kinds of things I wouldn’t normally expect to read about in one book. For example, I didn’t know that Sweden is the only country which has a law requiring parents to meet representatives of the Deaf community before deciding whether their deaf child should have a cochlear implant. Or that the producers of the film adaptation of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ chose not to use actual mental patients as extras because they “did not look strange enough to match the public image of mentally ill people”.

As a dyslexic gay man, Solomon describes his own encounters with “difference” and explores his relationships with his parents and children in the first and last chapters ‘Son’ and ‘Father’. However Solomon’s main focus rests not on himself but on the stories of the hundreds of individuals he interviewed over the course of a decade. Some of them are well known such as the pianist Lang Lang and the parents of Dylan Klebold but the majority are not. Every single one of their experiences reveals something new and insightful about the nature of empathy and acceptance in parent-child relationships. Solomon draws a number of convincing parallels between different identities, such as those between the Deaf community and gay community and how child prodigies and children with disabilities both challenge their parents’ perception of what is “normal”.

‘Far from the Tree’ is an extraordinary book about extraordinary people: “Ordinary people insist that they are unique, while extraordinary people maintain that they are really just like everyone else.” The idea that difference is what unites us all is a powerful one and I would defy anyone not to be moved by this vast, compassionate study of what it is to be human.

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Far From The Tree by Andrew Solomon

  1. This book was amazing. I read it years ago and it continues to be one that I think of often and recommend to anyone who might be interested in it. Glad you got so much out of it!

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  2. I read part of this but it was due back at the library before I could finish it. It’s a tome and looks intimidating, but I found it very engaging and readable (and eye-opening and compassionate). I think I need to get my own copy so that I can read it at my own pace. I agree with you that it’s best read in small parts.

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  3. I received this book (from myself) for Christmas this year, but haven’t read it yet. I’m looking forward to it, but keep pushing it off due to its size. I think I will take your advice and read it a bit at a time. It might be easier to fit in that way!

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  4. I’ve put off reading this, but I think I need too. Been reading a lot lately on health care and the costs, would be interesting to get a good look into what a family goes through under the circumstances of care in these situations. My current read in Joe Flower’s Hoe To Get What You Pay For, a book about the costs of health care across the board and the need for reform. So they might coincide some.

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  5. Such a good review. It was a book that took me by surprise in some ways because the world I grew up in, and continue to live in, has remarkable diversity that I hardly notice because it feels normal. (As it should. The “family” from the assisted living faciility where all the members take part in shopping excursions or trips to the library, most of them with what would once have been called profound mental and physical handicaps. The team of athletes who regularly participate in special olympics, swimming or running or whatever far more impressively than most of us who don’t share their physical or mental differences. The Deaf group. The young trans people I see now.) And then comes the question, well, what if we as a society could take away the differences, either by increased genetic counseling to expectant mothers, or by surgery or, or, or… What kind of world would that be in all its perfection? I loved that Andrew Solomon takes the reader through this trajectory and asks us to think hard about what the human family should look like, feel like, or simply be?

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  6. Book Club Academy

    I’ve had this one lying around for ages, but never got around to reading it. Sounds like I should!

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  7. Pingback: Far and Away by Andrew Solomon | A Little Blog of Books

  8. Pingback: My Books of the Year 2016 | A Little Blog of Books

  9. Pingback: The Wellcome Book Prize Longlist 2017 | A Little Blog of Books

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