Friday, June 20, 2008

Review: The Condition

Summary: The Condition tells the story of the McKotches, a proper New England family that comes apart during one fateful summer. The year is 1976, and the family, Frank McKotch, an eminent scientist; his pedigreed wife, Paulette; and their three beautiful children has embarked on its annual vacation at the Captain's House, the grand old family retreat on Cape Cod. One day on the beach, Frank is struck by an image he cannot forget: his thirteen-year-old daughter, Gwen, strangely infantile in her child-sized bikini, standing a full head shorter than her younger cousin Charlotte. At that moment he knows a truth that he can never again unknown something is terribly wrong with his only daughter. The McKotch family will never be the same.

Twenty years after Gwen's diagnosis with Turner's syndrome, a genetic condition that has prevented her from maturing, trapping her forever in the body of a child, all five family members are still dealing with the fallout. Each believes himself crippled by some secret pathology; each feels responsible for the family's demise. Frank and Paulette are acrimoniously divorced. Billy, the eldest son, is dutiful but distant, a handsome Manhattan cardiologist with a life built on compromise. His brother, Scott, awakens from a pot-addled adolescence to a soul-killing job, a regrettable marriage, and a vinyl-sided tract house in the suburbs. And Gwen is silent and emotionally aloof, a bright, accomplished woman who spurns any interaction with those around her. She makes peace with the hermetic life she's constructed until, well into her thirties, she falls in love for the first time. And suddenly, once again, the family's world is tilted on its axis.

Compassionate yet unflinchingly honest, witty and almost painfully astute, The Condition explores the power of family mythologies, the self-delusions, denials, and inescapable truths that forever bind fathers and mothers and siblings. -- Harper Collins

I have been a big fan of Jennifer Haugh since my book club read MRS. KIMBLE a few years ago. I enjoyed that book and loved BAKER TOWERS, a book based on a Pennsylvania coal-mining town near where my parents grew up. Needless to say, I was anxiously awaiting her newest book THE CONDITION, which is scheduled for release on July 1, 2008. When I received an early copy of this book a few weeks before its release date, I felt the urge to do a little "happy dance."

Just to show how small a world it is: a few years ago, I was mentioning the book BAKER TOWERS to my aunt who lives not too far from Bakerton, PA -- the town Baker Towers was based on; and she mentioned that she was familiar with the book and the author. My aunt actually knew Ms. Haigh's mother -- she was the school nurse at the same school that Ms. Haigh's mother was the librarian! Anyway...

I was not disappointed with THE CONDITION, and I think it might be my favorite novel that she's written (so far.) That's saying a lot because she received a great deal of praise for her other two books -- MRS. KIMBLE won the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction and was a finalist for the Book Sense Book of the Year and BAKER TOWERS won the 2006 PEN/L. L. Winship Award for outstanding book by a New England author. Ms. Haigh is a truly gifted writer -- she just oozes mega-writing skills!

THE CONDITION is a beautiful story about the downfall of a family after the daughter Gwen is diagnosed with Turner's Syndrome -- a genetic condition that prevents Gwen from ever physically maturing. All five of the McKotch family members eventually lead their own lives with only minimal interaction with each other. None of them seem as if they are happy or even content with their current situation. The author does a wonderful job of creating these characters and bringing them to life. She allows the reader to see inside their minds and really understand their insecurities and feelings. These characters are all flawed, yet I still was able to feel compassion for each of them.

I thought the book was set up very nicely. The beginning chapters are a flashback to 1976 -- the last time the entire family vacationed together. This was the last time things were "normal" for the family since it was right before Gwen was diagnosed with Turner's Syndrome. The next section of the book (the condition) jumps to 1997 and deals with the fallout after Gwen is diagnosed with Turner's -- Gwen becomes a lonely woman with little social interaction, the parents' divorce, the oldest son retreats to New York City and becomes a doctor with a secret life, and the youngest son is stuck in a dead-end job and an unhappy marriage. The third section of the book (the cure) takes place in 1998 and deals with Gwen meeting a man and falling in love. As the first part of the story deals with what happens to the family after Gwen is diagnosed with Turner's, the final part of the book deals with the effect that Gwen's relationship has on the entire family.

I loved the title of this book. My first impression was that "the condition" that the title referred to was Gwen's Turner's Syndrome. However after reading the book, I think that the title could be alluding to other "conditions" as well. Basically, each member of the McKotch family is wrestling with their own "condition" -- something that they blame for the demise of their family. In addition, I'm pretty sure that the term is also referring to the condition of the McKotch family in general-- the various states of the family throughout the course of the novel.

Anyone of Ms. Haigh's books would make wonderful book club picks -- I highly recommend giving at least one of them a try. THE CONDITION has so much to discuss -- who doesn't enjoy talking about the dynamics of a dysfunctional family? As of right now, I haven't found a discussion guide for THE CONDITION, but I'm sure Harper Collins will have one available in the very near future.

Update: Here are the links to the discussion questions as well as an extremely interesting interview with Jennifer Haigh about THE CONDITION.

Also reviewed at:
Breaking the Spine


Cheryl said...

Wow great review. This sounds like a very moving book. I am adding it to my list to check out

Anna said...

Thanks for the review. I cannot wait to read this book!

LisaMM said...

Julie, this book sounds so interesting! Your review is great, thank you!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this great review! Discussion questions can be found here:

Anonymous said...

I love the cover too! You write amazing reviews!

Michele said...

OOh! Very excited! My book club read Baker Towers and had a chat with Ms. Haugh when we reviewed it. I loved the book and am excited she has another one coming out! Will let the group know. Thanks for the review.

Darlene said...

What a great review! I have this one reserved at the library and am anxiously waiting for it. We read Mrs. Kimble for our book club and I read Baker Towers on my own and enjoyed both a great deal.

Jill said...

I completely agreed with you about the title...because, of course, I expected the book to focus mainly on Gwen's ailment, and when it didn't, it made me think, "the condition" is a term broader than her illness. I really enjoyed this book.