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Family Matters

by Archie Bland

There are certain terms that get so idly thrown around in book reviews that they lose all currency. The commonplace is ‘extraordinary’. Pamphlets are ‘monumental’. Amusements are ‘important’. These words are useful for getting a reviewer on the dust jacket, but as far as the picky reader’s concerned, they might just as well be replaced with the phrase ‘I quite liked it’.

I came to Far From The Tree with this critical inflation in mind, and was consequently sceptical of the awestruck praise that decorated the cover. Besides, Andrew Solomon’s book is about the difficulties and rewards of parental love, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to contend with a 962-page doorstop on that subject. Being of an age at which the number of my friends with babies is approaching critical mass, I am growing just the tiniest bit weary of the torrent of joyful Facebook updates, many of which might be paraphrased as the unsupported assertion that the child in question is extraordinary, monumental, or important.

Might Solomon’s reviewers be suffering from the same sort of gooey delusions? Even if they were right, I had my doubts: every time I hold a baby and nearly drop it, I am reminded that one of my main feelings about raising children is that I will almost certainly screw it up. This book seemed like it might be unhelpfully reinforcing.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. On the cover of my edition, the New York Times Book Review promises that to read it will make you “a more imaginative and understanding” human being. Reading as a general undertaking might do this, and yet I’m hard pressed to think of many particular books that make you a better person. But this one does.

Solomon’s epic undertaking was to examine the varieties of love in parents with truly exceptional children. He meets families contending with autism, with deafness, with dwarfism, with schizophrenia; with children who are prodigies, or are conceived in rape, or are criminals, or transgender. In reading their stories, endlessly varied and yet also all the same, I realised how appallingly easy it is to separate oneself from such people, largely because the emotional capacity that generosity seems to require is simply too much; and yet how the resources to do so are present in almost everyone.

I found myself intimidated but then bottomlessly moved by these parents, both exceptional and not, their commitment at once an act of the fiercest will and the most helpless kind of love; I found myself forced to reconsider situations that I had always considered a disability, which can also be understood as an identity deserving of pride. The thing that unites us, as it turns out, is difference.

These differences, often terribly difficult, are never overcome by love. But by and large, it is love that means they can be borne. Every test seems to give this love a texture that those who feel it could never wish away. And so, quite to my surprise, this book about parenting at its very hardest didn’t make having children seem even more frightening; it made it much less so. No, I don’t know the first thing about it. But neither did they.

Through it all, Solomon is the tenderest and wisest of guides. The book took him a decade to write; I expect 10 more years to pass before I find another work of non-fiction that affects me as much. For this reader, at least, Far From The Tree is extraordinary. It is monumental. It is important.