George, aged three, comes into the room. “Hi, George,” says his father the author Andrew Solomon. “Are you going out?” “Yes, I’m going out.” “I hope you have a lovely time. Where are you going?” George ignores the question. “Daddy, are you coming?” “I can’t come right now because I’m doing an interview, but I’ll do something you with you a little later.”
George looks pensive. “OK. Bye, Daddy.” And off he goes.
George appears towards the end of Solomon’s recent book about exceptional children, Far From the Tree. In the final chapter, he recounts his son’s conception and birth, and the journey to parenthood he undertook with his partner, John. As gay men, they had to navigate their way through egg donors and surrogacy, but then, finally, there he was, a baby. “Gay parenting is never accidental, or casual or careless,” Solomon says. “It doesn’t mean it’s always done well, but because it requires so much effort and planning and focus, I don’t think people go into it lightly.”
Solomon, a New Yorker, spends half his time in London. We sit in the elegant living room of his house in Kensington and when George ambles in, you can see the parental flush of adoration rise in his cheeks. George, clearly, is exceptional to him – he tells wonder-struck anecdotes about his son’s love of trucks – but he is not exceptional according to the categories of the new book: Deaf, Dwarfs, Down’s Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, Crime, Transgender. For each of these, Solomon interviewed parents about their experience of bringing up a child entirely different from themselves, a child who had fallen far from the tree. The stories are harrowing but also enlightening as you meet parent after parent who never thought that such a difficulty would befall them, and yet amid the struggle found ways to cope with and celebrate the unique presence of their child. They are forced, quicker than most, to go through what nearly every parent must: the recognition that their child is in some ways a stranger. Or, as the author puts it in the opening line of the book: “There is no such thing as reproduction.”
Solomon spent ten years on the book, his fourth. The previous three covered Soviet artists, his mother’s illness and death and, in The Noonday Demon, depression. “It’s all about people who are in an incredibly awful situation who managed to bring some kind of greatness out of that situation.”
In The Noonday Demon that person was often himself; it begins with a fiercely honest account of his battle with mental illness. The follow-up, Far From the Tree, is an act of public service, designed to help those in isolated predicaments and to give a voice to children routinely sidelined by society.
He evolved enormously through writing the book, he says. “In the first place, I was made uncomfortable by people in pretty much all of the categories in the book, and so I had a rather intense process of coming to terms with my fears and anxieties.” It also meant that he became more accepting of his family – of John, of George. “I’m less inclined to foist my standards on everyone else. I still do it a bit, but it’s a little more under control.”
It’s not difficult to imagine Solomon as a man of standards. He dresses and speaks as the perfect east coast gentleman, and has the backstory of a man who gathers achievements and institutions with casual ease – a top First in his graduate studies in England, lecturer at Cornell, fellow at Yale, member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and so on.
But that’s to give the wrong impression – he is also a man who likes to write and talk in the most frank and human terms about love. Far From the Tree taught him that the love felt for a disabled child often intensifies in defence against the world’s presumption that the disability is a disaster. His next book – based on the PhD he is finishing up at Cambridge –will examine a different kind of love, between mother and child.
“People said to me, I know you had a depression, but you’re mostly a fairly cheerful person: why do you keep writing on these grim topics? And I said, OK, why don’t I try to write about love?” Romantic love seemed to be well covered by the poets, so he opted for the maternal kind, partly out of an awareness “that we’re bringing up a child without a mother, effectively”, and the process might help him grapple with that absence.
It all comes back to the child, to George. One night, Solomon says, they were putting him to bed and “John said, ‘We love you more than the sun and the moon.’ And I said, ‘We love you more than the ocean and the sky.’ And John said, ‘We love you more than the trees.’ And George said, ‘More than the dump truck?’” Solomon laughs. “That’s become our byword for real love.”