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Jennifer Haigh: The Condition


The Condition

Author: Jennifer Haigh
Publisher: Harper

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In 1976, as they do every summer, the McKotches vacation on the Cape in the Captain's House. The opening section of Jennifer Haigh's near-perfect novel The Condition lingers over this last moment the family spent in the sun: Mother Paulette, with her faultless Massachusetts pedigree; father Frank, the geneticist with a roving eye who buries himself in his work; eldest Billy, the golden boy and apple of his mother's eye; sister Gwen, 13 years old but still short of puberty; and youngest Scott, whose uncontrollable energy and tantrums wear down the whole family. Then Frank has a horrible realization that something is wrong with Gwen. She isn't just a late bloomer—she's defective. "In a year the house will be sold. Frank and Paulette McKotch will communicate through lawyers," Haigh writes. "It is the last summer for this family. Nothing will ever be the same."

The shadow of their infinite promise, together and individually, hangs over the rest of the novel. In 1997, Frank has pinned his fading quest for scientific glory on a nubile young grad student. Paulette is inexplicably smitten, in late middle age, with a rootless carpenter. Billy lives half in the closet, avoiding his family as much as possible while making the scene in New York. Scott toils at a corporate-owned fake prep school, his marriage going downhill while his son Ian rampages through second grade. And Gwen, whose life was most directly changed by that long-ago summer's diagnosis of Turner's syndrome, buries herself in museum work for which she is overqualified, and gives up on the dream of ever being loved.

American literature has long mined the New England aristocracy for its poignant, slightly decadent evocation of worlds gone by. Haigh manages to marry that sensibility to a thoroughly modern tale of fractured family, and the result has a timeless, effortless grace. The PEN/Hemingway winner fulfills the promise she showed in Mrs. Kimble, expanding her voice to encompass five distinct life experiences, all of which she inhabits with complete command. As the McKotches rush toward their inevitable collision back on the Cape of their youth, their hard-won epiphanies sink into the surf and rise with the cresting waves, and readers may wind up holding their breath, hoping against hope that a few of them will discover some bliss amid their collective erosion.