After reading (and falling hard for) Jennifer Haigh’s Faith last year, I knew I’d have to seek out all of her other works. Luckily I didn’t have to wait too long, and my second foray into her work was every bit as engaging as I’d hoped it would be.
The Condition begins in 1976 with the demise of the McKotch family. The is vacationing at their summer home in Cape Cod when things start to fall apart. Frank and Paulette’s marriage is starting to fray, but the real shock of the summer is seeing their 12-year-old daughter play at the beach with her cousin. When compared to her developing pubescent cousin, it becomes obvious that Gwen isn’t just a petite late bloomer. By the end of the summer, the family is dealt a blow: Gwen has a rare genetic condition called Turner’s syndrome, and she’ll be trapped in the body of a child for the rest of her life.
Fast forward a couple of decades. Frank and Paulette have long been divorced, their oldest son (Billy) is a doctor harboring a secret, their youngest son (Scott) is a hopeless screw up, and thirty-something Gwen is working in a dead-end job, tucked away in the basement of a museum. Her life is mostly solitary, and she’s guarded and emotionally stunted. Any semblance of the family the McKotches once was is completely gone; at any given time, communications between family members are strained at best.
But if Gwen was to “blame” for tearing the family apart all those years ago (an unfair weight she has carried all her life), she’s also to “blame” for unwittingly bringing them all back together. A coworker talks her into going on a Caribbean vacation, and during her stay, a wondrous and unexpected this happens: she falls in love and forgets about being “a Turner” for the first time in her life. Unfortunately, overprotective Paulette won’t hear of it, and the dysfunctional McKotches are drawn back together with only one goal in mind: to bring Gwen back home.
Interestingly enough, I didn’t think I’d like the book at first. It happened to me with Faith, too, where I just couldn’t get into the first few pages. But, as with Faith, once I passed that initial hump I couldn’t put the book down. Haigh’s ability to make painful situations come to life amazes me — there were several moments where I’d just get lost in the complex inner lives of the book’s many characters (each member of the McKotch family is given ample time in the spotlight).
It also becomes evident that, though the title mainly refers to Gwen’s Turner’s syndrome, “the condition” morphs into different meanings depending on the family member. However, while the McKotches each bring their own brand of dysfunction to the table — some more than others — the book is still sprinkled with enough wry humor to keep things from getting too heavy (there was one particular line in Billy’s narrative that even made me burst into laughter). Fans of the dysfunctional family drama genre might want to keep an eye out for this one.
The Condition was released on paperback on June 30, 2009 by Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins.