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Another Family Story?by Jennifer Haigh
The Condition tells the story of a family torn apart not just by a daughter's medical condition, but by the decades' worth of mistakes and disappointments and regrets that followed. It's a story about five adults trying to function as a family five people who didn't choose each other and probably wouldn't have, but are tied to each other in ways they don't welcome and don't completely understand.
The Condition opens in 1976, the summer of the Bicentennial, with a family vacation on Cape Cod. Frank and Paulette McKotch do this every year, make the annual pilgrimage to join Paulette's extended family at the Captain's House, which they've owned for several generations. The McKotch children are 14, 12, and 9, and for Gwen, the middle child, this summer is particularly traumatic. Her cousin Charlotte, who is the same age, is going through puberty, and Gwen is... not. All the cousins are at the beach, in bathing suits, and the contrast between Gwen and Charlotte is hard to miss. Everybody notices, but this is the kind of family where such matters are not discussed. And that's where the story begins.
Gwen, it turns out, has a condition called Turner's Syndrome. This is a genetic glitch, present from conception, a defect in one of the X chromosomes. Essentially it means that a girl will never mature physically. When we meet Gwen many years later as an adult, she is a bright, accomplished woman, finishing a PHD in anthropology; but she is four feet eight inches tall, the same height she was at age 11. Her body looks almost exactly as it did when she was a child. Gwen is healthy; she has no medical complications. But she is physically different. She makes a confusing first impression: strangers aren't sure whether she's a woman or a child. Gwen knows this, and it affects the way she sees herself. Her instinctive reaction is to avoid people altogether. And this has affected the course of her entire life.
We live in a world that attaches tremendous importance to the way we look. Physical appearance affects our career prospects, how much money we make, whether we are respected or pitied, lonely or loved. Women, in particular, benefit tremendously and unfairly if they happen to fit the rather narrow definition of what is beautiful. They also suffer tremendously also unfairly if they don't fit the definition at all. And yet nobody deserves to be beautiful, and nobody deserves to be plain. It's a genetic lottery, and we get what we get. And in a more equitable world, it wouldn't matter so much.
Gwen, of course, has given this a great deal of thought. She realizes that if not for a hiccup in the system a biological misfire, statistically unlikely everything in her life would be different. I find that idea incredibly compelling. As a writer, and as a reader, I turn to novels for one reason: to see how people's lives turn out. When I first learned about Turner's Syndrome, it seemed incredible to me that no one had written a novel about it.
In The Condition, Gwen is a woman trapped in the body of a child, a successful but lonely person. And then, something happens: at age 35, for the first time in her life, she falls in love. Everything in her life turns upside down. And because this story isn't just about Gwen, it has a ripple effect. The people closest to her lose their bearings too.
Gwen's Turner's Syndrome and the way her parents respond to it transforms the entire family. Her father, Frank, is an eminent scientist at MIT; he looks at Gwen's condition in clinical terms, and is even, in a scientific sense, fascinated by it. His wife sees this and is completely horrified. Their conflict over how to raise Gwen opens up a fault line in their marriage, one that was already there, but that they'd ignored successfully for a long time. Gwen's brothers, Billy and Scott, are also affected. Billy strives to be a model child, the one they don't have to worry about; he's so determined to be perfect that he ends up lying to his parents about who he really is. Scott, the youngest, feels like the least interesting member of the family, the least important. He's ready to set himself on fire, if that's what it takes to get someone's attention.
So the title of this book doesn't refer just to Gwen's Turner's Syndrome. She's not the only McKotch struggling with a condition. Each member of this family has his own set of symptoms all pointing to some sort of hidden defect, real or imagined, that seems to prevent him from getting what he wants in life. Frank and Paulette, the parents, struggle mightily with growing older; they both have an overwhelming sense of lost opportunities, of mistakes made, of time running short. Billy the perfectionist, Scott the chronic underachiever they both go through life struggling with who they are, believing on some level that they need to be fixed.
And that, really, was the idea that drove me in writing this book. We live in an age when so much of human experience has been medicalized. Personality quirks and behavior and physical traits that were once considered within the realm of normal sadness and worry and restlessness, crow's feet and baldness and bad sex are now treatable; there's a pill we can take or a procedure we can have to neutralize troubling emotions, to turn back the clock, to help us look and feel like the sleek and exuberant and perennially youthful celebrities who are the focus of so much attention these days. That's the world we live in, and my characters, like everybody else, feel a constant pressure to perfect themselves. The Condition is about the impossibility of doing that, the extreme difficulty of making peace with our imperfect selves and our flawed families, the people who are even more defective than we are. Yeah, it's another family story.
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Jennifer Haigh is the author of the New York Times bestseller Baker Towers, which won the 2006 PEN/L. L. Winship Award for outstanding book by a New England author, and Mrs. Kimble, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, Ploughshares, Good Housekeeping, and elsewhere. She lives in the Boston area.