The Condition
Jennifer Haigh
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The Condition
Jennifer Haigh
416 pages
June 2009
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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The Condition begins in 1976, when the seeds of discontent are sown in Frank and Paulette McKotch’s fragile marriage. The couple meets with their children and their extended family at The Captain’s House, Paulette’s inherited home on the edge of Cape Cod, ostensibly to celebrate a summer together but also to try and work through some of the issues that have progressively plagued them, especially the incessant quarrelling that in hindsight seems so ridiculous.

A somewhat self-centered and hedonistic man, Frank’s career as a scientist has steadily begun to take precedence over Paulette’s emotional needs and the needs of their three young children: Billy, Gwen, and Scotty. This family seems to be beset by the greatest obstacle of all, that of dealing with Gwen’s “condition” and her ultimate diagnosis of Turner’s syndrome, a chromosomal irregularity that gives her the powerful build of an Olympic child gymnast but also prevents her from maturing into a fully-fledged woman.

While Frank is of the opinion that Gwen’s condition is something that should be objectively and scientifically analyzed, maybe even cured with drugs and hormone treatments like one of his lab experiments, Paulette holds fast to willing self-denial, refusing to hear the news and unwilling to alter the delicate structure of her current life with its summer rituals and illusions of permanence.

It is clear, however, that the issue of Gwen is complicated, her condition only adding tension to the other issues that currently surround her parents delicately fracturing marriage. When the story moves forwards to 1997, we see that Frank and Paulette have finally divorced and that the three children have gone their separate ways, Billy to New York and a life as a successful businessman, Scott into a mediocre career in teaching (and a hasty and disastrous marriage to Penny, a free-spirited dope smoker), and Gwen to a shy, diffident life working in the anthropology department at a museum in Pittsburgh.

The family makes attempts to keep in touch, but since the divorce they haven’t been together for a while. In spite of their considerable reservations, the children have managed to attend the occasional Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year with Paulette. At one of these gatherings, Gwen suddenly announces she will be going on a diving holiday in Saint Raphael. This revelation is not in itself scandalous, but the trip jumpstarts a series of events that shockingly culminate in an affair with a dashing young diving instructor.

Overprotective to the point of being deceitful, Paulette predictably overreacts to her delicate daughter’s compulsive life change, pleading with Frank and later Scott to take charge and bring Gwen home. But Gwen’s incipient independence far from the bonds of family is all about finding love, an emotion that seems to have eluded much of the McKotch family up until now, especially the embittered Paulette, who still holds a flame for Frank.

In the midst of Paulette’s hysterical non-acceptance of Gwen’s “condition”, author Jennifer Haigh presents a piquant mix of interlocking worlds, delving deep into the heart and minds of her characters, exploring the elemental but also sometimes fleeting connections of blood and marriage, where time becomes the enemy and love (and the possibility of it) seems forever lost.

With each passing year, Paulette becomes more aware of time’s momentum and the destruction it has wrought. She is haunted by her marriage to Roy and his perpetual self-importance and selfishness. The sexual investigator and relatively unsuccessful breadwinner, Scott descends into black funk, a rich and unsatisfying blend of outrage and self-pity that threatens to overtake him and his marriage completely.

Billy, when it comes to his family, opts for privacy; only Gwen knows the truth about Srikanth, his handsome and debonair boyfriend. Although not struggling with his sexuality, for years Scott has been unable to come out to either Paulette or Frank, terrified at their reaction. For his part, Frank is finally thrust into a competitive scientific field, but soon enough he realizes, with a sense of panic, that he’s nearing the end of his productive years with the accolades resulting from the big genome discovery now somehow eluding him.

Dissecting her characters with a scientific precision, Haigh gets to the heart of their inner lives and loves as they try to maneuver around their petty insecurities, their selfish mistakes and the assumptions that they’ve made about each other over the years. Much of the time this family is not particularly warm or appealing, yet they remain totally fascinating in their inability to communicate even as they try to navigate through the thorny issues of acceptance, of themselves and of each other.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2008

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