The Condition

The Condition

3.4 38
by Jennifer Haigh

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In the summer of 1976, during their annual retreat on Cape Cod, the McKotch family came apart. Now, twenty years after daughter Gwen was diagnosed with Turner's syndrome—a rare genetic condition that keeps her trapped forever in the body of a child—eminent scientist Frank McKotch is divorced from his pedigreed wife, Paulette. Eldest son Billy, a

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In the summer of 1976, during their annual retreat on Cape Cod, the McKotch family came apart. Now, twenty years after daughter Gwen was diagnosed with Turner's syndrome—a rare genetic condition that keeps her trapped forever in the body of a child—eminent scientist Frank McKotch is divorced from his pedigreed wife, Paulette. Eldest son Billy, a successful cardiologist, lives a life built on secrets and compromise. His brother Scott awakened from a pot-addled adolescence to a soul-killing job and a regrettable marriage. And Gwen—bright and accomplished but hermetic and emotionally aloof—spurns all social interaction until, well into her thirties, she falls in love for the first time. With compassion and almost painful astuteness, The Condition explores the power of family mythologies—the self-delusions, denials, and inescapable truths that forever bind fathers and mothers and siblings.

Editorial Reviews

Chris Bohjalian
Haigh has demonstrated in her previous two novels, Mrs. Kimble and Baker Towers, an unerring ability to chronicle the ways people delude themselves—those lies we tell ourselves daily to survive. And in The Condition her touch with characterization is usually sure. Occasionally, Paulette's monumental repression and Billy's gay domesticity feel a tad cliched, 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…I cared so much for each member of the McKotch clan that I was…happy to have spent time with them, and to have witnessed them growing up and old and, finally, learning to accept who they are.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Haigh's third novel relates the heartbreaking story of Gwen McKotche, a young woman inflicted with Turner's syndrome, which will forever trap her in the body of a child, and her family's trials and tribulations. With flawed yet honest and caring characters, Jennifer Van Dyck relates the story in a believable voice drenched in sadness without editorializing. Van Dyck delivers a solid reading that displays her knack for emotional storytelling while still allowing her audience the privilege of commanding their own emotions for the majority of the tale. Van Dyck never tries to force sympathy and tears from her audience, but will have no problem bringing them to the surface of each listener. A Harper hardcover (Reviews, Feb. 18). (July)

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Kirkus Reviews
PEN/Hemingway Award winner Haigh's third novel (Baker Towers, 2005, etc.) focuses on the now disconnected members of a once close-knit New England family. The summer of 1976 is the last Paulette and Frank McKotch and their three children will spend together as a family at her parents' Cape Cod cottage before the house is sold and Frank and Paulette are divorced. Cold but needy Paulette, who dropped out of Wellesley to marry, and warm but self-centered Frank, a scientist and professor at MIT, are sexually incompatible-he wants more and she wants less. Their already shaky marriage falls apart when their 13-year-old daughter Gwen is diagnosed with a chromosome deficiency that keeps her from developing physically in puberty; Frank wants to pursue medical solutions while Paulette wants to protect Gwen from pain. Cut ahead 20 years to the mid-'90s. Frank and Paulette have never remarried. Both are painfully lonely. Bill, their oldest son, has become a cardiologist in Manhattan. He is in a genuinely loving relationship with another man, but he keeps his sexuality a secret from his parents, and completely avoids Frank, who always favored him. Youngest son Scott, the family black sheep, has fallen into marriage with a woman whose coarseness is portrayed almost as a moral deficiency. At 30, teaching at a mediocre private school, he barely supports her and their two children. Although he lives in nearby Connecticut, he too rarely sees his parents or siblings. At 34, Gwen still has a child's body. She lives a lonely life working in a museum. On a vacation in the Caribbean, Gwen falls in love with her guide. Paulette, a conventional snob and overly protective mother, sends Scott to find Gwen, settingin motion a chain of reactions that ultimately force each of the McKotches to reexamine their relationships with each other and with themselves. After the lovely opening, filled with genuine insight and touching lyricism, Haigh overly orchestrates her characters' lives. Agent: Dorian Karchmar/Lowenstein-Yost
People (People Pick)
“[A] rich, enjoyable third novel. . . . Haigh sets many balls in motion . . . [and] the McKotch clan evolves believably, and satisfyingly.”
Wall Street Journal
“[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.”
Andre Dubus III
“Jennifer Haigh illuminates the dark tangle of desire and deed that is the family, that crucible we so often yearn to flee yet keep coming back to again and again. THE CONDITION is unsentimental, compelling, and moving, and I urge you to read it!”
Tom Perrotta
“The ailment at the center of this remarkable novel is the human condition itself. Jennifer Haigh has written a sprawling, emotionally gripping account of one family’s troubled history, enlivened by her formidable intelligence and deep insight into her characters’ hearts and minds.”
People Magazine
"[A] rich, enjoyable third novel. . . . Haigh sets many balls in motion . . . [and] the McKotch clan evolves believably, and satisfyingly."
“[A] rich, enjoyable third novel. . . . Haigh sets many balls in motion . . . [and] the McKotch clan evolves believably, and satisfyingly.”
Janet Maslin
“THE CONDITION is something rare. . . . Ms. Haigh has a great gift for telling interwoven family stories and doing justice to all the different perspectives they present. . . . A remarkable accomplishment.”

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Meet the Author

Jennifer Haigh is the author of the short story collection News From Heaven and four critically acclaimed novels:  Faith, The Condition, Baker Towers and Mrs. Kimble. Her books have won both the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction and the PEN/L.L. Winship Award for work by a New England writer. Her short fiction has been published widely, in The Atlantic, Granta, The Best American Short Stories 2012, and many other publications. She lives in the Boston area. 

Brief Biography

Boston, Massachusetts
Date of Birth:
October 16, 1968
Place of Birth:
Barnesboro, Pennsylvania
B.A., Dickinson College, 1990; M.F.A., Iowa Writers' Workshop, 2002

Read an Excerpt

The Condition


The Captain's House

Summer comes late to Massachusetts. The gray spring is frosty, unhurried: wet snow on the early plantings, a cold lesson for optimistic gardeners, for those who have not learned. Chimneys smoke until Memorial Day. Then, all at once, the ceiling lifts. The sun fires, scorching the muddy ground.

At Cape Cod the rhythm is eternal, unchanging. Icy tides smash the beaches. Then cold ones. Then cool. The bay lies warming in the long days. Blue-lipped children brave the surf. They opened the house the third week in June, the summer of the bicentennial, and of Paulette's thirty-fifth birthday. She drove from Concord to the train station in Boston, where her sister was waiting, then happily surrendered the wheel. Martine was better in traffic. She'd been better in school, on the tennis court; for two years straight she'd been the top-ranked singles player at Wellesley. Now, at thirty-eight, Martine was a career girl, still a curiosity in those days, at least in her family. She worked for an advertising agency on Madison Avenue—doing what, precisely, Paulette was not certain. Her sister lived alone in New York City, a prospect she found terrifying. But Martine had always been fearless.

The station wagon was packed with Paulette's children and their belongings. Billy and Gwen, fourteen and twelve, rode in the backseat, a pile of beach towels between them. Scotty, nine and so excited about going to the Cape that he was nearly insufferable, had been banished to the rear.

"God, would you look at this?" Martine downshifted, shielding her eyes from the sun. The traffic had slowed to acrawl. The big American engines idled loudly, the stagnant air rich with fumes. The Sagamore Bridge was still half a mile away. "It gets worse every year. Too many goddamned cars."

A giggle from the backseat, Gwen probably. Paulette frowned. She disapproved of cursing, especially by women, especially in front of children.

"And how was the birthday?" Martine asked. "I can't believe la petite Paulette is thirty-five. Did you do anything special?"

Her tone was casual; she may not have known it was a tender subject. Like no birthday before, this one had unsettled Paulette. The number seemed somehow significant. She'd been married fifteen years, but only now did she feel like a matron.

"Frank took me into town. We had a lovely dinner." She didn't mention that he'd also reserved a room at the Ritz, a presumptuous gesture that irritated her. Like all Frank's presents, it was a gift less for her than for himself.

"Will he grace us with his presence this year?"

Paulette ignored the facetious tone. "Next weekend, maybe, if he can get away. If not, then definitely for the Fourth."

"He's teaching this summer?"

"No," Paulette said carefully. "He's in the lab." She always felt defensive discussing Frank's work with Martine, who refused to understand that he wasn't only a teacher but also a scientist. (Molecular developmental biology, Paulette said when anyone asked what he studied. This usually discouraged further questions.) Frank's lab worked year-round, seven days a week. Last summer, busy writing a grant proposal, he hadn't come to the Cape at all. Martine seemed to take this as a personal slight, though she'd never seemed to enjoy his company. He's an academic, she'd said testily. He gets the summers off. Isn't that the whole point? It was clear from the way she pronounced the word what she thought of academics. Martine saw in Frank the same flaws Paulette did: his obsession with his work, his smug delight in his own intellect. She simply didn't forgive him, as Paulette—as women generally—always had. Frank had maintained for years that Martine hated him, a claim Paulette dismissed. Don't be silly. She's very fond of you. (Why tell such a lie? Because Martine was family, and she ought to be fond of Frank. Paulette had firm ideas, back then, of how things ought to be. )

In Truro the air was cooler. Finally the traffic thinned. Martine turned off the highway and onto the No Name Road, a narrow lane that had only recently been paved. Their father had taught the girls, as children, to recite the famous line from Thoreau: Cape Cod is the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts. The shoulder is at Buzzard's Bay; the elbow at Cape Mallebarre; the wrist at Truro; and the sandy fist at Provincetown.

Remembering this, Paulette felt a stab of tenderness for her father. Everett Drew had made his living as a patent attorney, and viewed ideas as property of the most precious kind. In his mind Thoreau was the property of New England, of Concord, Massachusetts, perhaps even particularly of the Drews.

"Is Daddy feeling better?" Paulette asked. "I've been worried about his back." Martine had just returned from Florida, where their parents had retired and Ev was now recovering from surgery. Paulette visited when she could, but this was no substitute for Sunday dinners at her parents' house, the gentle rhythm of family life, broken now, gone forever.

"He misses you," said Martine. "But he made do with me."

Paulette blinked. She was often blindsided by how acerbic her sister could be, how in the middle of a pleasant conversation Martine could deliver a zinger that stopped her cold: the backhanded compliment, the ripe apple with the razor inside. When they were children she'd often crept up behind Paulette and pulled her hair for no reason. It wasn't her adult life, alone in a big city, that had made Martine prickly. She had always been that way.

They turned off the No Name Road onto a rutted path. It being June, the lane was rugged, two deep tire tracks grown in between with grass. By the end of summer, it would be worn smooth. The Captain's House was set squarely at the end of it, three rambling stories covered in shingle. A deep porch wrapped around three sides.

The Condition. Copyright © by Jennifer Haigh. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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