Shelf Help Review: Far from the Tree – Parents, children and the search for identity by Andrew Solomon

Sometimes your child – the most familiar person of all – is radically different from you. The saying going that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. But what happens when it does?

Drawing on interviews with over three hundred families, Andrew Solomon documents ordinary people making courageous choices. Difference is potentially isolating, but Far from the Tree celebrates repeated triumphs of human love and compassion to show that the shared experience of difference is what unites us.

What we inherit from our parents can be genetic and it can be cultural, but our personal identities are not necessarily defined by our families, try as they might. This could relate to sexuality, abilities, interests or talents, disabilities or illnesses. Having finished Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, in which Jeanette Winterson tells the real story behind the fictionalised account of her childhood and adolescence, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, I was already thinking about these ideas which are at the heart of Far from the Tree, March’s Shelf Help selection.

This book is divided into thematic chapters: Son, Deaf, Dwarfs, Downs Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, Crime, Transgender and Father. This gives you some idea of the book’s huge scope, based on Solomon’s in-depth and wide-ranging research. It’s possible to read it cover-to-cover as a single entity, or to use it more like a reference text and select sections that are most pertinent at the time.

To give you a better introduction, here is Andrew Solomon’s fantastic recent TED:MED talk:

I’m sure that will have whetted your appetite and it’s certainly given me a great insight into the ideas and motivations behind the book.

You may not know that Far from the Tree was the winner of the Green Carnation Prize, which celebrates LGBT Literature, in 2013. Chair of the judges for 2013, Uli Lenart of Gays the Word, described it as “A work of extraordinary humanity. Life affirming, insightful and profoundly moving. Andrew Solomon continuously makes you reassess what you think. An opus of diversity, resilience and acceptance; Far from the Tree is a book that has the power to make the World a better place.” Fellow judge Kerry Hudson, who was shortlisted for the prize in 2012, said “In the way that the best literature does, Far from the Tree gives access to different worlds and in doing so will change the way you look at things forever. It informs, inspires, moves and entertains. It is the sort of book that makes you grateful to have found it and that remains a gift for a lifetime.”

I’m really looking forward to spending more time with Far from the Tree, and being able to give it the attention that it merits and deserves.


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