Monday, January 9, 2012

The Condition, by Jennifer Haigh

The title of this book and its structure--it starts with a "prologue" set in 1976 just before the McKotch family discovers that young Gwen has a genetic condition (Turner's syndrome) that will prevent her from physically maturing normally--suggest that Gwen's condition is the root of the family's many difficulties. But this is certainly not the case, as the members of the family all have "conditions" that keep them from happiness and fully functional lives.

The parents--who are long-divorced by the late 1990s, when the real action of the book begins--seem to have been badly matched to begin with. Father Frank, who came from a working class family in Pennsylvania, is a scientist obsessed with achieving success; at the same time, his libido sometimes obscures his judgement. These factors combine in bad ways to sabotage his chances for the recognition he longs for. Mother Paulette is a New England patrician, who believes beige should be every woman's favorite color and is embarrassed to discuss her daughter's medical issues. Older brother Billy is a successful cardiologist in New York City, but he has distanced himself from his family because he is hiding the fact that he is gay from them. Gwen is underemployed in a museum and has limited social contacts. Younger brother Scott, a pothead who teaches at a mediocre private school, is struggling to find something meaningful about his life. As he deals with his son's constant problems in school, he realizes that he is probably ADHD himself.

When Gwen goes on a dive trip, falls in love, and decides to quit her job and live in the Caribbean, Paulette freaks out and tries to get each of the men to take action. Billy and Frank, both embroiled in problems of their own, refuse, but Scott is delighted by the idea that his mother is trusting him to act for the family and heads south to "handle" the situation. By the end of the book, all three children emerge changed--although not necessarily in ways that seem realistic.

I didn't actively dislike The Condition (although I despised the gratuitous 9/11 reference at the end), but I think I would have liked it more had it been more focused on Gwen and her challenges, as I thought it would be. The other members of the McKotch family were less interesting and their issues more mundane and self-inflicted (in Billy's case, I'm referring not to his sexuality but his choice not to tell his family about it). Perhaps if they were a bit less stereotypical, they might have been more sympathetic. But Gwen is the star of the book--and could have had an even bigger part.

Favorite passage:
Like everything else, maturity had disappointed Paulette.

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