Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity

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A Year in Reading: Jen Gann

Toward the end of 2017, a woman emailed me with an offer to buy my 1-year-old son. She could tell I didn’t want to be a mother based on an essay I’d written, and she believed my son deserved someone more like herself. She would meet me anywhere in the country, with an amount of money that was up to me, she wrote, then referenced the park a few blocks from where my family and I lived. Two weeks later, we moved across the country. The move was planned, but because of this email and other messages like it, I tried to stay quiet about our location in public, internet spaces. That woman and her kind are welcome to think I still live near that park in Brooklyn.

Here, our books live in shelving far from where I usually read. This house has an upstairs and a downstairs. The garage—which holds two strollers and a couple of bikes—doesn’t have a car, but occasionally we borrow one and park it in the driveway. Every weekday, I leash up the dog and walk the two blocks between this rented house and my son’s preschool. Often, I don’t say more than a few words to anyone besides my family. My companions are books and podcasts, single-sided relationships with other people’s words.

One of the reasons we moved has to do with our son, who was born with a progressive genetic disease. We had read scientific papers stating the value of the ocean for people with compromised lungs like his; we had scrutinized the lung-function data on patients in the area. Immediately after we moved, his new doctor increased the amount and intensity of his treatments and medications. Part of this was age: He newly qualified for certain medications; he’d finally grown big enough to wear the medical vest that shakes up the persistent mucus forming in his lungs.

When my son’s at his healthiest, he needs about two hours of treatment a day. His father does the mornings while I hide in the bedroom with headphones on and work. I do the evenings. The other day our son told me, “Daddy does the sun, and you do the moon.” Sometimes I catch myself looking forward to this time of day, when work is over and my son is watching TV in my lap and I have a book in one hand and his nebulizer in the other, and I’m overcome with shame.

Early in the year, as the compressor hummed and the medical vest vibrated, I read Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, which you don’t need me to tell you is searing and incredible, and then I read Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy. I read all of Ruth Ware’s books, then the two Tana French ones I hadn’t read. I read Leïla Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny and found it chilling and indicting in a way I think went largely unobserved, and then I tried and failed to write effectively about whatever it is I mean by that.

My son caught colds and needed more treatments. It was so tempting to be angry when we were told to increase treatment time to four hours, as if those doctors and nurses were punishing my son instead of trying to keep him out of the hospital. One or two times, maybe more, I couldn’t stop myself and brattily asked how any parent who works is supposed to keep up with this level of treatment. Somewhere in there, I tried reading memoirs, by Emily Rapp and Tara Westover, and worried I would never be able to figure out memoirs.

In the spring, I read what I believe are three essential Mom Books: The Millions’ own Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which is the experiential novel of early motherhood any baby-curious person who cares about the West—any person, really—should read. I reread Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything when it arrived to me in its beautiful hardcover form with just as much greed as I did the first time around, when I squinted into a strangely formatted PDF that I made Meaghan send me. If Lydia’s book is experiential, then Meaghan’s book is an analysis of the motherhood experience—a balance of description and examination, of humor and emotion. I also read Angela Garbes’s Like a Mother, the very human look at the science of pregnancy, childbirth, and early motherhood. Angela is a dream teacher and writer for someone like me, who loves a story but isn’t an experienced reader of science.

(I want to note that I am very biased and have edited work by all three of these women. But I will also note that I have commissioned and assigned pieces by them for the exact reason that they are very good writers.)   

One of the only books by a man I read this year was Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree. I needed to reread Solomon’s book before writing about the documentary of the same name, which is a mash-up of Solomon’s story and the stories of families with children who are profoundly different from their parents. I have complicated, mixed feelings about Solomon’s work, partially because I think it’s incorrectly heralded as a tribute to the beauty of humanity. The book has its beautiful parts, as does the film, but I think what his work is truly about is the stubborn and at times ugly persistence it takes to love and care for any child, no matter that child’s level of difference.

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner wore me to the bone, the first book I picked up this year where I was not expecting to encounter so much female pain. It’s written in one long ache of mother anguish, and it’s a San Francisco book, but almost unrecognizably so. Today, the western side of the city feels haunted—during the time Kushner’s writing about, those ghosts are alive and walking the streets. I didn’t read very many collections of short stories this year, but I did read Curtis Sittenfeld’s new collection, You Think It, I’ll Say It, and each story was just as funny and sad and acutely observed as her novels are.

It was summertime by then, though summer does not exist in any physical way where I happen to live. I don’t remember what I was reading the day this happened, but I know we were spending the weekend an hour south at our friends’ house. It was me, my husband, a couple he’s known since college, our son, their daughter. The kids are about 10 months apart and get along—the last fight they had was about the speed at which a song should be sung (my son thought fast, she thought slow). Usually, if we’re all together, she sits with my son during treatment, recognizing a free opportunity to watch an hour’s worth of TV. But that day he refused to watch the show she wanted (Peppa) and treatment is a time when we let my son have his way, since treatment is a blunt manifestation of how much has not gone and will not go his way. After she got up and ran out to the deck, my son turned his attention to what I think was a show about trucks, and I read whatever it was on my Kindle.

Maybe 10 minutes in, we heard knocking—my husband and our friends’ daughter were at the window, grinning and motioning for our attention. My son looked away from his screen and stood up, saying something—it’s hard to understand someone who’s both 2 and wearing silicone—and clawing at the nebulizer mask I was holding over his face. He managed to get it off and I turned off the compressor as his voice unmuffled and I understood what he was repeating: no more no more no more no more. I froze and then unfroze and shook my head at my husband to try to get them to go away, to make him realize what it was doing to our son, seeing that healthy child playing on the other side of the glass. Finally I mouthed stop in a way that reached him, and the expression on his face collapsed, and he and our friends’ daughter and their freedom moved out of sight. I sat my son back down and turned the compressor back on and we both turned back inward, to our screens filled with other people’s words.

My favorite book is Irma Voth by Miriam Toews; if you were taken by Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, read this—it’s even better. So many people I know love Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows, and I do too, but Irma Voth is the best depiction of impossible, unquenchable female pain I’ve ever read. I don’t remember how I eventually got a galley of her newest, Women Talking, but once I finally got it I was uncharacteristically prim about starting it. A few weeks went by before I finally did. Somehow I hadn’t realized it was narrated by a man and at first I was mildly disappointed, and then I was selfishly thankful, because I think the amount of female pain in Women Talking might flatten the person who reads it without the buffer of a narrator one step removed.

The year felt like it might already be over when the Camp Fire started. Suddenly, everyone had become fluent in the air quality index, and for once, our child wasn’t the only one who couldn’t play outside. But our homes were fine; unlike the people in Paradise, our possessions and everyday lives had not gone up in flames. At first, maybe one in three of our neighbors wore a mask to walk their dogs through the thick-crisp air. We still took our son preschool, trying to shuttle from indoors to indoors as quickly as possible. Then our son’s nose ran with thick snot, and he began to cough. The city closed all the schools, the office workers were told to stay home. Our son’s cough worsened. The only recommendation you could get from anyone was to stay inside and wear a mask, but my husband desperated his way through a Target and came home with the store’s last $400 air purifier. The now-familiar guilt bloomed after we used it to measure the air quality inside the room where our son sleeps. He and I got on a plane to my parents’ house the next day.

Those few weeks require a long, complicated explanation. They cost hours of phone calls, thousands of dollars, and two weeks away from my son. My husband didn’t see him for nearly three. At one point, our son’s blood oxygen level was the lowest I’d ever seen it—when I updated our tough-as-nails nurse from the small-town doctors’ office near my parents’ house, it was the first time I’d ever heard her sound worried. I left him with my parents in the hopes that level would go up and went to New York for work and thank god, it did. For a few days it seemed like he was getting better. I was sitting at a desk in the office I used to go to every day when my mom called to say he’d spiked a fever and the small-town doctor was certain he had the flu and—well, we all knew what that could mean for him. If there’s any skill I’ve gained from dedicated reading, it’s whatever mettle is necessary to cry quietly while writing a few emails.

In the end, he did not have the flu. We still don’t know what that sudden fever was about. He seemed to feel terrible, then a bit better. Just like that, reality turned back into something I could face without first pulling a security grate down over my mind.

The past few days I’ve been reading Heavy by Kiese Laymon because Heather Havrilesky wrote that it’s overflowing with a brutal honesty, and whose own new book, What If This Were Enough?, is just as overfull with sometimes painful truth. There is so much I hope for my son, and one hope is that he finds something that gives him what reading gives to me: a way to rest from the kind of violence it takes to endure regular life, which I think he might need more than I do—since it must take even more violence to endure regular life when your body is actively trying to end it for you. I could say that I hope 2019 will be different, but I suspect it will be more of the same, requiring many books and lots of ugly persistence and all the stubborn love we can live with.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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No Superheroes Here: Nine Upcoming Book-to-Film Adaptations

Hollywood has always looked to the literary world for stories, and 2018 has already seen a number of big screen adaptations, including Annihilation, A Wrinkle in Time, Ready Player One, and On Chesil Beach. Here’s a look ahead to the summer’s offerings, so if you’re the type of person who prefers to read the book before the movie—and we know you are, Millions readers!—you’ll have time to prepare.

Eating Animals is Jonathan Safran Foer’s memoir about becoming vegan. Now it’s a documentary narrated by Natalie Portman. Make sure to eat a good meal before watching it, because it’s one of those documentaries, like Food, Inc., that’s sure to make you lose your appetite (in theaters June 15).

Leave No Trace is an adaptation of Peter Rock’s My Abandonment, the story of a father and daughter who live secretly in a public urban park in Portland, Ore.—until they are accidentally discovered by a jogger. It’s written and directed by Debra Granik, who also directed Winter’s Bone (in theaters June 29).

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is based on the memoir of John Callahan, whose wickedly funny cartoons are the kind that make you say, “I really shouldn’t be laughing at this.” At 21, Callahan was involved in a bad car crash that left him a quadriplegic. After years of therapy, he learned to hold a pen again and started drawing. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Callahan, with Gus Van Sant directing (in theaters July 13).

Far from the Tree is a documentary based on Andrew Solomon’s nonfiction book about parents whose children are very different from them, e.g., hearing parents whose children are deaf, the parents of children with autism, the parents of child prodigies, the parents of children with dwarfism—to name just a few of the many people Solomon interviews. I loved this doorstopper of a book when it was first published and am curious to see how Solomon’s in-depth reporting and research translates to the screen (in theaters July 20).

The Wife will star Glenn Close as the titular wife of Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel, which is narrated by the self-sacrificing wife of a famous novelist. It’s a bitterly comic novel, one that the 2003 Publisher’s Weekly review notes has “no cheap, gratifying Hollywood ending to make it all better.” Let’s see if the movie stays true to form (in theaters Aug. 3).

Juliet, Naked is based on Nick Hornby’s 2009 novel about the girlfriend of a fanboy who begins a correspondence with the object of her boyfriend’s obsession, a singer-songwriter called Tucker Crowe. Hornby has had success with previous adaptations of his novels, including High Fidelity and About a Boy, and this latest book-to-screen transition looks like a smooth one. Starring Ethan Hawke as Tucker Crowe (in theaters Aug. 13).

Crazy Rich Asians looks like it’s going to be just as much fun as Kevin Kwan’s novel, a romantic comedy about an NYU student, Rachel Chu, who travels with her boyfriend, Nick Young, to Singapore to meet his family—who turn out to be ridiculously wealthy. Also, Nick is the sole heir to the family fortune! This spells trouble for Rachel, who is just a naive, middle-class girl from California. Kwan’s novel, the first of the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, was a bestseller in 2013. So maybe this isn’t the last film adaptation we’ll see (in theaters Aug. 13).

The Bookshop adapts Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel by the same name. It’s a tragicomedy about a bookstore trying to thrive in a small fishing village in 1959. Today’s bookstore owners might relate? Originally published in 1978 in the U.K., it didn’t make it to the U.S. until the late 1990s. Now it’s a film starring Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, and Patricia Clarkson, written and directed by Isabel Coixet (in theaters Aug. 24).

The Little Stranger is based on Sarah Waters’s bestselling haunted house thriller. Set in postwar England, it tells the story of a country doctor, Farady, who is called to the estate of Hundreds Hall to treat a servant. The house is one he knows from childhood, because his mother used to work there as a maid. He soon becomes entangled with the family. With Domhnall Gleeson as Farady and Charlotte Rampling as the lady of the house, and directed by Lenny Abrahamson, who directed the 2015 adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s Room (in theaters Aug. 31).

A Year in Reading: Michelle Huneven

This year, for research, I read a lot of bad science (a textbook on Eugenics, anyone?); for pleasure, my habits were scattershot, although I turned to many old favorites, often in audiobook form.

After seeing it in drafts over several years, I finally read my friend Mona Simpson’s brilliant, highly entertaining Casebook between covers, with charming illustrations.

A year ago, my excellent husband had Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life shipped to me from England when it was published there; that led me to reread The Blue Flower, Gate of Angels, and The Beginning of Spring.

I listen to audiobooks throughout the day, as I garden and cook, clean the kitchen and drive, and I have a contemporary child’s delight in listening to my favorites as often as I please. I keep Juliet Stevenson’s version of Persuasion on a pretty much permanent loop, but after reading Anna Keesey’s marvelous essay, “Simple Girl: the Improbable Solace of Mansfield Park” in the Los Angeles Review of Books, I moved on to Stevenson’s audiobook of that Jane Austen. (I also read Keesey’s lovely historical novel set in Eastern Oregon Little Century.) I then re-listened to Amanda Root reading Jane Eyre, but am presently back to Juliet Stevenson and her stunning reading of To the Lighthouse.

I admired Carlene Bauer’s intelligent and deft Frances and Bernard, an epistolary novel based on an imagined passion between Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell that dealt with so much of great interest to me: religious identity, passionate love [with the wrong person], and the ongoing struggle for women of doing one’s work.

I enjoyed Christopher Bollas’s peripatetic novel, Dark at the End of the Tunnel, a series of intense conversations a psychoanalyst has with his patients, friends, and wife. That primed me to pick up Becoming Freud by Adam Phillips, whose epigrammatic style is always invigorating and thought-provoking; in this short biography, he focuses on Freud’s Jewishness and early career, when he was formulating his great theories about children and families as he himself was having and raising kids.

Partly because so many people recommended Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree in their reading lists last year, I read it this year and found it, chapter by chapter, continuously revelatory and incredibly moving.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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A Year in Reading: Edan Lepucki

I read so many great books this year, from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which hijacked my life for two weeks with its absorbing story of an orphan, his grief, and that stolen painting, to Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings (reviewed here), which I still sigh over lovingly each time I pass it on the bookshelf.

However, two books stood above the rest in 2013, one a novel and the other a work of nonfiction…

It doesn’t matter that I attended public school (L.A. Unified in the house!) whereas Matthew Specktor went to one of the best private schools in Southern California. Or that his dad is a legendary Hollywood agent, while mine works below the line as a location manager. Or that he was a boy in L.A., probably burning bugs with a microscope, or whatever boys do, and I was a girl, filming fashion shows with my sisters in the  living room, getting my ears pierced on Melrose. None of these piddling distinctions mattered when I read Specktor’s brilliant and ambitious novel, American Dream Machine, which waxes poetic about the Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset (R.I.P.!) and Damiano’s, the cave-like pizzeria on Fairfax, and which comes out swinging with descriptions like this one: “And eventually the whole hill flattened out into that ash-colored plane, that grand and gray infinity that is Los Angeles from above: God’s palm, checkered with twinkling lights and crossed with hot wind.” My city, its ash-colored plane! There it is! Specktor’s gorgeous book, about the flawed, chauvinist, talented film agent Beau Rosenwald, as tender as he is damaged, made me feel like my native city had been properly seen. It made me feel like a piece of fiction had finally and properly seen me. And if you’ve never even been to Los Angeles? No matter. Specktor’s prose alone is enough to lure you in: it’s sharply observed and nimble, like a more mischievous cousin of John Cheever, and his characters are wonderfully and deeply complicated, wounded and secretive. American Dream Machine is narrated by Beau’s illegitimate son, Nate, and the sprawling first person omniscience (first person omniscience!) is what I keep coming back to, months later, to puzzle over and admire. How did Specktor do it? He’s a magician, I tell you.

If I see you at a holiday party this December, I will corner you at the punch bowl and talk your ear off about Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon, which resonated with me not only as a mother and as a daughter, but as a human being on this big messy planet of human beings. It’s page-turning nonfiction in the tradition of Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Columbine by Dave Cullen, a genre I love but don’t read enough of. Solomon spent years researching this book, and he interviewed many, many parents with children who are different from them; the book includes chapters about the deaf, the autistic, the schizophrenic, geniuses, and so on. Solomon depicts these communities with respect and compassion, and he consistently raises meaningful questions about tolerance and empathy. Solomon’s book pushed me to investigate my own notions of normalcy, and I came away grateful to my own parents, for letting me become who I needed to become. This book is a masterpiece! And, hey, here, let me ladle you some punch, that’s a nice sweater, etc.

More from A Year in Reading 2013

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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A Year In Reading: Hannah Gersen

This year the books I liked best fell into two categories: the ones I read in a rush, squeezing in pages every spare moment or staying up late to finish them; and the ones I read slowly over several months, so that the books became my faithful companions. I tend to read three or four books at a time and this year what often happened is that one book would reveal itself to be a tortoise, and would live on my nightstand for weeks, while the hares (and whatever animal is between a hare and a tortoise — a cat?) raced by. As someone who gravitates toward “slow” books and movies, my sympathies lie with the tortoises, but I have to admit it was exciting to come across so many books that I couldn’t put down.

The books that raced past were the aptly-titled This Is Running For Your Life, by Michelle Orange; See Now Then, by Jamaica Kincaid; The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud; Schroder, by Amity Gaige; Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple; The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer; and The Circle, by Dave Eggers.

Of those hares, the one that still haunts me is Schroder. (And I have to thank Kathryn Schulz, whose in-depth rave made me pick it up.) It’s a novel about a divorced father, Eric Schroder, who is so frustrated with his custody arrangements that he kidnaps his daughter, taking her on a road trip through New England. Halfway through the book I felt I had been kidnapped, too, in the way that I was won over by a narrator I didn’t completely trust.

My tortoise reads included Dear Life, by Alice Munro; Far From The Tree and The Noonday Demon, both by Andrew Solomon; and Independence Day, by Richard Ford. I am actually still reading Independence Day, and I have been reading it since September. It’s the second novel in Ford’s Frank Bascombe trilogy, after The Sportswriter, but you don’t need to have read The Sportswriter to enjoy it. (Or at least, I didn’t.) Like Schroder, Independence Day is narrated by a divorced father, concerns a road trip between a father and his child (although without the kidnapping), and takes place over just a few days. It feels a little funny to spend several months with it. A week passes by in my life, while just a few hours go by in Frank Bascombe’s. But I love the way Ford stretches time in this novel, reveling in moments of happenstance, overheard conversations, and local landscapes. Here’s the view from Frank Bascombe’s windshield in upstate New York:
“A sign by a turnout announces we have now entered the Central Leatherstocking Area and just beyond, as if on cue, the great corrugated glacial trough widens out for miles to the southwest as the highway climbs, and the butt ends of the Catskills cast swart afternoon shadows onto lower hills dotted by pocket quarries, tiny hamlets and pristine farmstead with wind machines whirring to undetectable windows…In my official view, absolutely nothing should be missed from here on, geography offering a natural corroboration to Emerson’s view that power resides in moments of transition…”
Finally, I have to mention the children’s book Ox-Cart Man, by Donald Hall, which I guess would fall in the tortoise category, since I’ve read to my one-year-old son at least twice a day for the past six months. It’s a simple story about a 19th-century farmer who travels from his small homestead to Portsmouth, N.H., where he can sell his harvest, his ox, and his cart at the market. My son loves it because it is full of lists and repetition. I love it because the language is plain and elegant and perfectly matched to the story. It’s so elegant, in fact, that I thought it would make a beautiful poem, and in a moment of procrastination I discovered that there is indeed a poem, “Ox Cart Man”, (by Donald Hall), which you can read in the Poetry Foundation’s archives. Now that I think of it, Ox-Cart Man is yet another book about a New England road trip, so perhaps that’s the true theme of my year in reading. Maybe I should close out the year with On The Road and head into the New Year looking west.

More from A Year in Reading 2013

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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