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Love is a Skill: Andrew Solomon’s Long Path from Fiction to Non-Fiction

by Hannah Gersen

Most readers know Andrew Solomon as a non-fiction writer, but earlier this month, Scribner re-issued his debut novel, A Stone Boat. First published in 1994, it received excellent reviews and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times First Fiction prize. Solomon was only 30, and the success of A Stone Boat might have pointed toward a career as a novelist. But, as Solomon documents in his subsequent non-fiction book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, the publication of A Stone Boat corresponded with a debilitating episode of depression, one that took him years to recover from, and ultimately led him to write the 576-page examination of depression from personal, historical, scientific, and philosophical perspectives.

Ten years later, in 2012, Solomon published Far From The Tree, which chronicles the difficulties and joys of parents raising children with “horizontal identities”, that is, children whose identities are not directly (vertically) related to their parents’. These are the parents of prodigies, the parents of dwarves, of the deaf, the disabled, and the criminal, to name just a few. It’s a book of unusual vision and compassion and, like The Noonday Demon, entailed a monumental amount of research.

…[T]he autobiographical elements of A Stone Boat are fairly obvious. It’s set in Manhattan, where Solomon himself is from, and is narrated by a young concert pianist, Harry, whose mother is dying. The novel focuses on the relationship between Harry and his mother, one that is complicated first by Harry’s emerging gay identity, and then by his mother’s cancer diagnosis. On its most basic level, A Stone Boat is about clinging to love in the face of death, but on a deeper level, and especially in light of Solomon’s subsequent books, it’s a story about illness and identity, and how families cope when reality intrudes on their ideals. In the face of cancer, Harry and his mother cling to their simple love and their simple identities: the adored, dutiful son and the adoring, commanding mother. But cancer treatments undermine Harry’s mother’s authority, not to mention her beauty and vitality; and Harry cannot feel altogether adored or dutiful, knowing that his mother disapproves of, or at least, misunderstands, his sexual identity.

(To read the full review, please visit The Millions.)