Read This Book
Reader Be Warned. I am a fast reader. This book took me six months to read. Far from the Tree is, in the words of my friend Kathleen, a weighty tome. It is so weighty, in fact, that I read it on my Kindle because it was too heavy to comfortably sit in my lap. It’s well over 1000 pages (although several hundred of the pages are end notes).
Andrew Solomon is the author. He gave an amazing talk at the University of Michigan this past April promoting his book which I attended. He autographed my book (not the Kindle version, the physical book which I also bought) and patiently and respectfully listened while I babbled on and on about how much I loved his book and how it spoke to me.
To quote the press release, “Far from the Tree weaves together a richly detailed narrative about families with children affected by a range of cognitive, physical, or psychological characteristics that make them distinctly different from their parents.” The first chapter sets forth the analytical framework, explaining how vertical identities and horizontal identities differ. Vertical identities are identities in which children are like their parents – think ethnicity, socio-economic status, or religion. A horizontal identity is a condition/characteristic in which a child differs from his or her parents in a fairly significant way. Although many horizontal identities have a genetic base, others do not. The book is also about how parents and siblings react to having a child who is profoundly different from them and who, in many cases, requires considerable care and attention. Each chapter is a deep dive into a particular horizontal identity, a combination of extensive case studies and current thinking/science/moral dilemmas concerning the topic. Solomon clearly made the decision that if a family was going to take the time to talk to him, they would be included in the book. So there are many, many case studies (I think he worked on the book for 10 years). And the various horizontal identities profiled are fascinating. Dwarf. Deaf. Autism. Schizophrenia. Transgender. Criminal.
The book is informative and thought-provoking. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book which has caused such introspection and contemplation about parenthood, difference, and disability.
I realize that I sound completely brainwashed when I talk about this book. I am not alone. I was so glad to see Curtis Sittenfeld (author of Prep) rant – albeit more articulately than I do – about how amazing the book is. You can read her rave here. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/14/books/review/curtis-sittenfeld-by-the-book.html?pagewanted=all) (Scroll down to the question “What book has had the greatest impact on you?”)
Far From the Tree rocked my world. Read it.
Rating: ***** (out of ****)
Emily Alone by Stewart O’Nan is a quiet book about an old woman, Emily, who lives in Pittsburgh alone. Her husband died years ago and her children and grandchildren live far away. Emily Alone painstakingly documents what old people face living independently – what Emily does, what she thinks, where she goes, who she goes with, and how she gets there. It is a slow burn of a book, heartbreaking yet affirming.
There isn’t much of a plot, but that makes sense, as retired people don’t have a heck of a lot of activity. When I started the book I assumed that much of the book would consist of flashbacks to fill in Emily’s life, so we would get to know about her life, how she met her husband, her marriage, and her children. The author avoids this, and I think he is right to do so. We can’t escape from Emily’s current existence – how she perseverates about a scratch on her car, her fear of falling when she walks her dog, how she plans for her grandchildrens’ visits, how she enjoys chatting with her maid when she cleans the house. Although a quiet book, it is absolutely worth reading.
Rating: *** (out of ****)
The Road Not Taken
Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings is a buzzy book. Having read lots of great reviews and several of Wolitzer’s prior books, I reserved my copy at the library and waited a month or two. My ship book came in last week.
It was worth the wait. The Interestings is the best book I have read in 2013 thus far. The theme of the book is The Road Not Taken. The book starts at an Arts Camp in the Berkshires and follows a handful of smart, sophisticated characters from adolescence through midlife. What happens when we think we are, excuse the expression, Hot Shit when we are young, and we fail to succeed? This happens to everybody to some degree; part of the heartbreak of growing up is the realization that the sky is not the limit, that talent is rare, that we will not become a professional baseball players or ballerinas. What happens when we commit to a relationship, but always wonder what would have happened had we chosen someone else? The Interestings successfully explores these questions.
Part of the reason I liked the book so much is that it is a theme that I – a 48 year old woman who just had a mini-midlife crisis via a disastrous short-lived job change – can relate to. But it is more than that. The Interestings succeeds on many levels. The characters are wonderful. The plot is strong. The book is engagingly written. Parts of it are laugh-out-loud funny. And the theme, as I mentioned, is great, interesting (as befits the title!), thought-provoking, and beautifully realized.
Rating: **** (out of ****)
Drunk Dialing and Driving
I read The Good House in a day. Here is the first sentence: “I can walk through a house once and know more about its occupants than a psychiatrist could after a year of sessions.” Loved the lead! Liked the book.
The novel recounts the travails of Hildy Good, a successful realtor in an affluent North Shore Boston suburb. Hildy is a townie, and the novel deftly explores what it’s like to live in a town overrun by wealthy newcomers seeking “authenticity.” Having grown up in this kind of town, I can relate.
But the main theme of the book is alcoholism. Hildy is recently out of rehab, which she grudgingly went to after an intervention from her family. Have I mentioned that this book is funny? A funny book about alcoholism which poignantly relates the collateral damage of the disease is no easy feat.
The book is worth reading because of the character of Hildy. The plot, which has to do with an implausible friendship between Hildy and a young Mom new to the town, is OK. But it doesn’t matter. Hildy is a wonderful character, and well worth getting to know.
Rating: *** (out of ****)
I wanted to like Eleanor and Park more than I did. The book is engaging and well written, with great character development and an amazing description of the joys of holding hands. The story, summed up by the tag line “a touching tale of two misfits who find where they fit is together” is the kind of thing I usually love.
The problems with the book are twofold: 1) the narrative style, 2) the undercurrent of sadness and unease that permeates the story.
Let’s start with style, since as we all know, style before substance (hee) . Though written in the third person, the book ping-pongs back and forth between Eleanor and Park. Some of the narratives are super-short, others much longer. This approach is a tad exhausting, inducing a sort of reader-whiplash.
The second problem is the sadness. And to be fair, this is probably more my issue. After all, it is fair to write a sad book. But stories that contain abuse and bullying are tough for me to get through. And the unclear resolution of the book left me hanging.
What I like about the book are the main characters, Eleanor and Park. By the end of the book the reader really gets them, their external appearance, their thoughts, what makes them tick and what they really like about the other. This is no small achievement, and it is, in the end, what makes Eleanor and Park worth reading despite the hiccups mentioned above.
Rating: ** (out of ****)