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The Conditionby Jennifer Haigh
The world falls apart for the privileged McKotch family when its youngest member, Gwen, is diagnosed with Turner's Syndrome. As fascinating as the diagnosis aspect of this novel is, the heart of the story is really in watching Gwen grapple with her disease as an adult. Gwen is much more than a woman with Turner's; she is a fully rounded character with her own desires and a will strong enough to withstand the many intrusions of her family. I loved this absolutely perfect novel more than I ever expected to. Jennifer Haigh will amaze.
Synopses & Reviews
The Condition tells the story of the McKotches, a proper New England family that comes apart during one fateful summer. The year is 1976, and the family — Frank McKotch, an eminent scientist; his pedigreed wife, Paulette; and their three beautiful children — has embarked on its annual vacation at the Captain's House, the grand old family retreat on Cape Cod. One day on the beach, Frank is struck by an image he cannot forget: his 13-year-old daughter, Gwen, strangely infantile in her child-sized bikini, standing a full head shorter than her younger cousin Charlotte. At that moment he knows a truth that he can never again unknow — something is terribly wrong with his only daughter. The McKotch family will never be the same.
Twenty years after Gwen's diagnosis with Turner's syndrome — a genetic condition that has prevented her from maturing, trapping her forever in the body of a child — all five family members are still dealing with the fallout. Each believes himself crippled by some secret pathology; each feels responsible for the family's demise. Frank and Paulette are acrimoniously divorced. Billy, the eldest son, is dutiful but distant — a handsome Manhattan cardiologist with a life built on compromise. His brother, Scott, awakens from a pot-addled adolescence to a soul-killing job, a regrettable marriage, and a vinyl-sided tract house in the suburbs. And Gwen is silent and emotionally aloof, a bright, accomplished woman who spurns any interaction with those around her. She makes peace with the hermetic life she's constructed — until, well into her 30s, she falls in love for the first time. And suddenly, once again, the family's world is tilted on its axis.
Compassionate yet unflinchingly honest, witty and almost painfully astute, The Condition explores the power of family mythologies — the self-delusions, denials, and inescapable truths that forever bind fathers and mothers and siblings.
"Happy families are all alike," Tolstoy famously observed at the start of "Anna Karenina," but "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Unless, of course, you're dealing with repressed New Englanders: Then the unhappy families are pretty alike, too. We are — and I say this with only love and respect for my family and my in-laws — uptight, priggish and determined either to sublimate our anxieties... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) with vigorous physical activity in the fresh air or drown them in a steady stream of gin and tonics. "The Condition," the title of Jennifer Haigh's third novel, is ostensibly a reference to Gwen, the middle child of Frank and Paulette McKotch of Concord, Mass. Gwen has Turner syndrome, a chromosomal abnormality that means she will never go through puberty. She will, in essence, have a woman's brain and a girl's body. As her father, a scientist, observes, she will always have "the powerful build of an Olympic child gymnast: the narrow hips, the shield chest." She will never be able to have children and won't top five feet in height. The title, however, is actually a reference to the condition of the whole McKotch clan and the ramifications of their constitutional, inbred inability to communicate. The book opens with a prologue set in 1976, when the family has gathered at Paulette's family's rambling house on Cape Cod. In this ancestral setting, her husband, Frank, is an interloper of sorts, a boy from coal-country Pennsylvania. Through hard work and brains he wound up at MIT, and while a student there fell in love with Paulette, who was at Wellesley. Gathered with the McKotch family are Paulette's grown siblings and their families. But the important people Haigh introduces us to are Paulette and Frank, whose marriage is starting to fray, and their three children: Billy, 14, the golden boy with promise; Gwen, 12, ominously underdeveloped; and Scotty, 9, a rambunctious, difficult boy. We get a taste of the sorts of people they will become as adults, when the novel proper begins in 1997. Twenty years later the house on the Cape has been sold, and Frank and Paulette have divorced. On the surface their marriage collapsed because of the differing ways they cope with Gwen's diagnosis: Frank is clinical and realistic, approaching his daughter's situation as he would a scientific conundrum in the lab; Paulette first denies there is an issue to be discussed and then tries to infantilize Gwen. But in reality their relationship succumbed to the simple differences between Frank and Paulette. Frank is part hot-blooded frat boy and part cold-blooded lab rat. Paulette is the sort of woman who believes any woman's best color is beige and wants at all costs to avoid any conversations about the body. Meanwhile, Billy has become a successful New York cardiologist who has hidden from his family the fact that he is gay. Gwen is working at a museum in Pittsburgh as a collections specialist, where she can dress in blue jeans and Pirates sweatshirts and not have to interact with anyone. She has no boyfriend, few female friends and has withdrawn from even the idea that she will ever have a lover or a husband. And then there is Scotty, who dropped out of college, ran away to the West and wound up married to a drifter with an endless supply of marijuana. Now he and his wife have two kids, he has finished college, and he teaches English at a third-rate private school, the antithesis of the old-money, New England boarding school from which he and his brother graduated. And, alas, not one of the five is happy. Haigh has demonstrated in her previous two novels, "Mrs. Kimble" and "Baker Towers," an unerring ability to chronicle the ways people delude themselves — those lies we tell ourselves daily to survive. And in "The Condition" her touch with characterization is usually sure. Occasionally, Paulette's monumental repression and Billy's gay domesticity feel a tad cliched, but generally Haigh's characters are layered and authentic. Moreover, one would have to have a heart of stone not to care for them and follow their small sagas. The novel moves at a leisurely pace with little occurring through the first half. In the second half, however, the story gathers momentum when Gwen visits a Caribbean island where a handsome, charismatic scuba instructor suddenly and inexplicably falls in love with her. She chooses to stay with him on the island, setting off a seismic shift that causes the rest of her family to lose their balance and make choices that range from merely shortsighted to appalling. And then we come to the end, which does not feel fully earned or very likely. But Haigh is such a gifted chronicler of the human condition and I cared so much for each member of the McKotch clan that I was nonetheless happy to have spent time with them, and to have witnessed them growing up and old and, finally, learning to accept who they are. Chris Bohjalian is the author of 11 novels, including "Skeletons at the Feast." Reviewed by Chris Bohjalian, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Haigh creates a realistic family dynamic from richly drawn characters, capturing the family members' various expectations of and assumptions about one another. Compelling; highly recommended for all fiction collections." Joanna M. Burkhardt, Library Journal
"After the lovely opening, filled with genuine insight and touching lyricism, Haigh overly orchestrates her characters' lives." Kirkus Reviews
"The Condition is unsentimental, compelling, and moving, and I urge you to read it!" Andre Dubus III, New York Times bestselling author of the National Book Award finalist House of Sand and Fog
"Jennifer Haigh has written a sprawling, emotionally gripping account of one family’s troubled history, enlivened by her formidable intelligence and deep insight into her characters’ hearts and minds." Tom Perrotta, New York Times bestselling author of Little Children and Election
The long-awaited third novel from the bestselling, award-winning author of Mrs. Kimble and Baker Towers explores the immutable bonds of family witnessed through one turbulent year in the lives of the McKotches.
About the Author
Jennifer Haigh is the author of the New York Timesbestseller Baker Towers, winner of the 2006 PEN/L. L. Winship Award for outstanding book by a New England author, and Mrs. Kimble, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction and was a finalist for the Book Sense Book of the Year. Both novels were number one Book Sense picks. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, Ploughshares, Good Housekeeping, and elsewhere. She lives in the Boston area.
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