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.
I mention these books because they were what led me to Solomon’s novel. I read both this spring, starting with Far From The Tree, and was struck by their deeply personal tone. His non-fiction is so narrative, with large swaths of memoir, and also, so literary, with allusions to myth and literature, that I wondered what more—or less—his fiction could possibly offer. I was also curious about A Stone Boat because Solomon refers to it throughout The Noonday Demon, (although not by name), as it relates to his own struggles with depression:
I have supposed that my first breakdown was tied to the publication of a novel that alluded to my mother’s illness and death; but it was also a book with explicit gay content, and surely that too was implicated in the breakdown. Perhaps, indeed, that was the dominant anguish: forcing myself to make public what I had so long immured in silence.
Even without Solomon’s interpretation, the 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.
The plot of A Stone Boat, insofar as there is one, is about how Harry and his mother learn to love each other anew, amid their newly complex circumstances. This is a drama that plays out again and again in Far From The Tree, as families who were expecting to love their children in the ordinary, easy way that all parents love their children, must instead learn to love a child whose personality, capacities, and identity are radically different from their own. Our culture has a fantasy that love is easy, that it flows naturally from the soul, but as Solomon observes in a line that comes from Far From The Tree but could have come from any of his books: “Love is not only an intuition but also a skill.”
A Stone Boat is a portrait of Solomon’s mother, as well a portrait of the world his mother occupied. It’s a fortunate place, with frequent trips to Europe, chauffeured cars, summer homes, and elaborate rituals and routines. The mother in A Stone Boat insists on cut flowers, drinks her sparkling water from stemmed glasses, takes afternoon baths, and has definite opinions on how her Harry should play various composers. When she is hospitalized, her husband has the means to join the hospital’s board, therefore insuring that she is housed in a magnificent room with water views, a room large enough to a host a party. Out of context, these details might sound overly privileged, even superficial, but for me, they were among one of the most moving aspects of A Stone Boat, and what separated it most from Solomon’s non-fiction, which is not especially visual. A Stone Boat revels in the material world, with paragraphs devoted to clothing, flowers, furnishings, buildings, cities, and bodies. We all grow up in the worlds our parents create, and Solomon fictionalizes his mother’s with care and admiration. “Living beautifully is not so hard,” Harry’s mother says, in her final weeks, knowing full well that her beautiful way of life, with all its daily comforts, is about to slip away with her. In a poignant gesture, she redecorates the apartment during her final year, so that everything will remain fresh and clean-looking for years after her departure.
While his mother prepares for death, Harry prepares for grief by breaking up with his long-time boyfriend and embarking on short-term love affairs that are sure to end in heartbreak. In a conversation with a new lover, Harry quotes a theory of beauty that posits that the experience of the sublime consists of trading easy pleasures for difficult ones. It’s an idea that comes up throughout the novel and which reaches its apex in the novel’s final pages, as Harry recalls a childhood memory suffused with pleasure and love for his mother—the easy love of a childhood. His realization, that adult life consists of trading this kind of childish admiration for a more considered, nuanced love, is his mother’s ultimate life lesson.
Harry’s mother also gives a compelling lesson in dying. During her treatments, she announces her desire to kill herself humanely if necessary. When that day comes, Harry finds himself witnessing a death scene “as grand and rich, as well-conceived and as stunning as La Traviata’s”. Given Solomon’s extensive writing on the subject, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by revealing this plot element. In The Noonday Demon, Solomon describes his mother’s suicide as “the cataclysm of my life” and devotes a portion of that book’s chapter on suicide to his mother’s assisted death. (In fact, there are passages in that chapter that echo the novel, almost verbatim.) More recently, on the occasion of Dr. Kevorkian’s death, Solomon wrote in The New Yorker about the right to die peacefully, citing his mother’s own decision “to die at home, with us beside her, under what she held to be optimal conditions.” But he also describes his confused response to her decision: “When I first wrote about my mother’s death, I papered over my ambivalence by cheering for what she did, and recovering from that uncertainty is a slow process, but I draw closer to it every day.”
You feel some of that hidden ambivalence in A Stone Boat, which describes the scene of the mother’s death in fascinating detail but was oddly not as riveting as the non-fiction rendering in The Noonday Demon. I read The Noonday Demon before A Stone Boat, so it’s possible that the specifics were simply not as fresh the second time around. But when you read about Solomon’s mother in The Noonday Demon, it’s with the knowledge that the author has devoted years of his life to the research of suicide. To borrow an idea from a recent interview with Jonathan Franzen, you are drawn in knowing that the author has some “skin in the game”. Some of that urgency is missing in the death scene that ends A Stone Boat; Harry is in awe of his mother’s decision, and he conveys the moment of her death with reverence; but he is also rather dazed, and incapable of much interpretation. In a strange way, the fictional version feels more reported than the non-fiction one. Solomon even acknowledges this reported feeling, by describing how Harry, in the hours after his mother’s death, grabs a piece of paper to write everything down.
Reading A Stone Boat so closely after reading Solomon’s non-fiction got me thinking a lot about the line between non-fiction and fiction, and in particular autobiographical fiction and memoir. It was interesting to observe the way Solomon wrote about his mother in his different capacities as memoirist, novelist, and reporter. But ultimately, the genre he chose didn’t seem to matter as much as the amount of time that passed between the publications of each book.
In A Stone Boat, which Solomon wrote just a few years after his mother’s death, Harry’s mother is a lively, authoritative, powerful character—so powerful that her elegant sensibility seems to infect the prose, which is more ornate and formal than in Solomon’s non-fiction writing. In The Noonday Demon, Solomon’s mother is a ghostly presence; her life and death feel unresolved, especially as Solomon describes his own experience with depression. (Interestingly, Solomon cites Hamlet, a character profoundly haunted by the ghost of a parent, as a character who changed the world’s understanding of depression.) Finally, in Far From The Tree, Solomon’s mother is portrayed in her full complexity. The book begins with an extended personal essay called “Son”, about growing up as a gay son born to straight parents. It’s a graceful, compassionate piece of writing, one that reveals Solomon’s mother as a kind, flawed, and charming woman, someone who loved her family imperfectly, as we all do.
The seeds of “Son” are there in A Stone Boat, especially in its final pages, as Harry struggles to grasp his mother’s legacy. You can also feel the stirrings of A Noonday Demon; Harry flirts with depression throughout the novel, worrying his mother and his friends. But even without Solomon’s evolution as a writer in mind, A Stone Boat is a small, elegant novel that asks a big, thorny question: how do we love unconditionally, but not blindly? It’s a question worthy of any genre, not to mention a career.