Andrew Solomon’s enormous new book, “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity,” is about children who are born or who grow up in ways their parents never expected. It’s a subject Mr. Solomon knows from experience. He was dyslexic as a child and struggled to learn to read. As he described in “The Noonday Demon,” which won a National Book Award in 2001, he once suffered from crippling, suicidal depressions. And Mr. Solomon is gay, which made his parents so uncomfortable that as a teenager he visited sexual surrogates in the hopes of “curing” himself.
Mr. Solomon, 49, is also different — different from most writers, anyway — in that he is independently wealthy and lives in baronial splendor in a West Village town house that once belonged to Emma Lazarus, who, though she wrote about those poor, huddled masses, was not herself among them. The book party for “Far From the Tree” was held not in some editor’s cramped Upper West Side apartment but at the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Mr. Solomon has recently been named a trustee.
William Davis, the father of an autistic son and one of the hundreds of parents and offspring Mr. Solomon interviewed for the book, recalled recently that he was a little taken aback when Mr. Solomon arrived at his home in Pennsylvania in a chauffeur-driven car. “But Andrew has a way of eliciting your true feelings,” he said. “You just trust him. You immediately want to pour your heart out to him.”
He added: “He’s living in a different world from the one I’m used to, but it’s not a problem, because he doesn’t try to hide it. He’s not trying to be one of the guys. But you can tell he cares. You just want to hug him.”
Sitting in the kitchen of his town house, occasionally raising his voice over the strident chirping of a canary named Barack — who flew in the window one day, recognized a nice situation and never left — Mr. Solomon explained that “Far from the Tree” took 11 years. It stemmed from a 1994 article about deafness he wrote for The New York Times Magazine. In the course of reporting it, he said, he realized that many issues confronting the deaf are not unlike those he faced as someone who was gay. A few years later, watching a documentary about dwarfism, he saw the same pattern again.
Eventually the book grew to also include chapters on Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, disability, prodigies, transgender identity, children who are conceived during a rape and those who become criminals. His file of transcribed interviews swelled to 40,000 pages, and the version of the book he originally turned in to his publisher, Scribner, was twice as long as it is now.