BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : On Death and Dying, Love and Conflict : A STONE BOAT by Andrew Solomon , Faber and Faber, $22.95, 241 pages


The author of "A Stone Boat" calls his book "a novel about love," but it is hardly a typical love story. Rather, Andrew Solomon has given us an urgent, closely observed, deeply conflicted but somehow elegant account of the illness and death of a mother.

"I need to write this as quickly as possible," declares the narrator of "A Stone Boat" at the very outset of the book. "I once told my mother that I would never forget her because there is so much of her in me, but this year, I'm not so sure. . . . I need to remember everything I possibly can."

The voice we hear in "A Stone Boat" belongs to Harry, a young pianist living in London with his lover, Bernard, and performing on the international concert circuit. When we meet him, Harry and his siblings have been summoned to Paris for a family reunion that turns into something ominous when his mother is found to have cancer.

Solomon, a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, has consulted the muse of so many first novels--the angel whose special duty is to hover over troubled families and whisper into the ear of an aggrieved but articulate offspring for whom the pen is a sword.

Harry's grievance is that his mother does not approve of his love affair with Bernard, although she concedes that it would have been OK if Harry's sister had brought him home. "I had long since moved to London," explains Harry, "but geographic remove had proved insufficient."

The family reunion in Paris is supposed to be a cease-fire in the war between mother and son, but a visit to the doctor and a shadow on an X-ray are the opening shots of another and far deadlier conflict.

"I can tell you in a sentence that my mother was dying, and in a way there is nothing more to be said about that," Harry says. "Or I can tell you every detail, and try to give you the quality of that lovely terrible Sunday and of the other days like it that were to become our way of life."

Solomon, of course, takes the second option. Indeed, the narrative spans an illness that lasts two years and pauses at all the stations of the Via Dolorosa of terminal cancer: the first surgery, the second surgery, the turban that is supposed to conceal the hair loss, the scourging of the patient with needles and radiation and chemicals, the moments of hope, the moments of despair, all in a curious counterpoint of self-contemplation as Harry measures the impact of his mother's disease on his own life and work.

Solomon writes with a winning blend of emotional intensity and elevated lyricism, often used in juxtaposition to signify the ironies of conflict between people who are supposed to--and, mostly, do--love each other. Harry recalls "hours as short as minutes . . . in the garden of the Musee Rodin," and yet it is in "my mother's Paris" that she allows her beloved son to understand that she attributes her disease to his sexual orientation.

"She finally said out and out what had always been hidden, what I had always feared might be true," Harry declares, "that my desire was killing her and would kill her."

Now and then, Harry's attention wanders from the sickroom and his eye falls on the other figures--his brother and sister, his friends and lovers. His relationship with Bernard goes critical; he is cast adrift in the sexual wilderness of New York City, searching restlessly for "any and every kind of love," which turns out to include some surprising permutations. But, always and inevitably, he turns back to his mother.

"The boys are keeping a deathwatch over me," she says. "I keep telling them to go out, but they don't want to miss a minute of the fun."

"A Stone Boat" is ultimately less about a conflict between mother and son than about the fearful but also sublime dance of death that sometimes accompanies a final illness. For those of us--so many of us--who have lost a parent or other loved one to cancer, Solomon's book is an all-too-vivid reminder of what it is really like when someone dies "by terrible and slow and imperceptible degrees."

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