three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
36-Sept-Oct-2008
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
0

A-The ConditionJennifer Haigh’s third novel (after Mrs. Kimble 3 of 5 Stars May/June 2003, a PEN/Hemingway Award winner; and Baker Towers 4 of 5 Stars Selection Mar/Apr 2005) once again probes domestic relationships in this portrait of a damaged, embittered New England family.

The Story: While vacationing with his wife Paulette and their three children, Billy, Gwen, and Scott, on Cape Cod in 1976, scientific researcher Frank McKotch notices that Gwen looks small and underdeveloped next to her younger cousins. Gwen’s subsequent diagnosis of Turner Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that will prevent her from entering puberty, shatters Frank and Paulette’s fragile marriage. Twenty years later, the family is splintered by the secrets they keep from each other: Billy hides his gay lover; free-spirited Scott is miserable as a 9-to-5 suburbanite; and Gwen, trapped in a girl’s body, has completely withdrawn from the world. When Gwen unexpectedly finds love, it rallies the McKotches and changes their lives forever.
Harper. 390 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 0060755784

Columbus Dispatch 4 of 5 Stars
"The PEN/Hemingway Award winner (Mrs. Kimble) overcomes a potentially clichéd plotline (a dysfunctional New England family struggling to be normal) to deliver another insightful and poignant novel." Bill Eichenberger

San Antonio Exp-News 4 of 5 Stars
"The Condition … is host to marvelously human characters and streamlined, elegant prose. … She plumbs the depths of motivations beautifully throughout the new work, although she stumbles a bit toward the end of the novel [in a scene that] feels as fake to the readers as it would to the characters." Jennifer Roolf Laster

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Jennifer Haigh’s new novel, The Condition, is a serious work of fiction and, surprisingly, a page-turner as well. … Will family bonds ever be strong enough to reunite them and see them through their trials? Haigh devotes the remaining pages to an elegant and perceptive exploration of this and other relevant questions." Bharti Kirchner

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Jennifer Haigh … looks unflinchingly at family ties—the kind that limit and the kind that can actually liberate. The Condition is a satisfying feat of literary choreography that echoes the escape-and-return theme of Ms. Haigh’s second novel, Baker Towers (2005), about a family in a Pennsylvania mining town." Gabriella Stern

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Occasionally, Paulette’s monumental repression and Billy’s gay domesticity feel a tad clichéd, 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." Chris Bohjalian

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Her tendency to get bogged down with background details about each character, and to tell instead of show their behavior, keeps her from fully succeeding. Yet the central question of the story—how a child whose genetic condition keeps her physically immature can finally be allowed to grow up—is compelling." Clara Silverstein

Critical Summary

Once again, Jennifer Haigh has proven herself to be "a gifted chronicler of the human condition" (Washington Post). Here, she asks piercing questions about the nature of family relationships. The narrative starts at a leisurely pace but gains momentum during Gwen’s awakening to the world. Haigh’s graceful, evocative prose lays bare her heartbreakingly genuine characters, particularly Gwen and Scott, whose individual struggles will resonate with readers despite the surfeit of background information that exasperated the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A few critics also objected to an implausible ending but were "nonetheless happy to have spent time with [the McKotch clan]" (Washington Post). A few missteps notwithstanding, The Condition is a heartfelt love letter to the human spirit and its ability to thrive against all odds.

Previously Reviewed

A-Mrs KimbleMrs. Kimble (2003): Award Star PEN/Hemingway Award Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, charming, itinerant Ken Kimble woos, marries, and discards three very different women, leaving a trail of wreckage and broken families behind him. ( 3 of 5 Stars May/June 2003)