THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

In 'Condition,' an ailment affects an entire family

JENNIFER HAIGH JENNIFER HAIGH (Asia Kepka)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Lionel Shriver
July 27, 2008

The Condition
By Jennifer Haigh
Harper, 390 pp., $25.95

A Pen/Hemingway winner for her first novel, "Mrs. Kimble," Jennifer Haigh has written an enjoyable, well-constructed third book that most readers will find absorbing. True, there's a "but" coming, although best to start with the novel's strengths.

"The Condition" begins in the McKotch family's vacation home on Cape Cod, where their yearly gathering is fractious; the cracks in this clan are already showing, and will eventually fissure. Fast-forward 20 years. The Cape Cod house has been sold. The parents, Frank and Paulette, have divorced. Each of the three grown children has a problem, as well as battling ongoing frustration with their controlling mother and their long-unavailable father, a philandering geneticist who in later life craves the connection with his kids that he might better have forged when they were small.

Structurally, Haigh manages her cast with orchestral ease, fleshing out each member of the family and his or her relations with one another. All her characterizations are sympathetic. Even Paulette is kindly portrayed - despite being sentimental, demanding, and, especially with her genetically impaired youngest, unable to release her children to make their own mistakes as adults. However tainted with possessiveness, her love for her children is real and well intended. As her efforts to find new romance come to nothing, we feel the sharpness of her disappointment at finding herself alone in late middle age. Much like real grown children, less compassionate writers might have demonized the mother in an eagerness to pin her offspring's shortcomings on a clear villain.

The eldest, Billy, a thriving doctor, conceals his homosexuality from his family, refusing to regard himself as in the closet, but insisting that he is merely maintaining his privacy. The middle child, Scott, has never found his professional footing; a bit of a waster with a weakness for pot, he coaches soccer at a second-rate prep school, lives in an arid housing development, and is married to a poorly educated, hastily wed bimbo with whom he has nothing in common. The youngest, Gwen, suffers from Turner syndrome, a chromosome deficiency that has stunted her growth, impaired her ability to bear children, and prevented her full physical maturation into womanhood. Introverted, guarded, and militantly self-sufficient, Gwen resents being continually mistaken for a child, not only by the rest of the world, but by her mother.

To the whole family's astonishment, Gwen takes a diving holiday in Saint Raphael by herself. Her subsequent affair with a handsome diving instructor who has far more winsome customers continually throwing themselves at his feet may constitute the only point at which the novel's plot stretches credulity. The romance is most certainly not credible to Paulette from afar, who no sooner gets word of her daughter's whirlwind island romance than she connives to end it. Indeed, in their disbelief that without ulterior motives this sexy instructor would ever fancy a short, chunky, wary girl with marginal social skills, Paulette and the reader are in accord.

Haigh's prose is - the word "competent" comes to mind. Like every aspect of this novel, it is well crafted. Occasional lines rise above: "But love is like any other material. You can only lean on it so hard, for so long. Sooner or later it's going to give." The odd muscular characterization is striking: "She was a pale, doughy young woman who managed to look both overfed and undernourished." Nevertheless, if my advanced reading copy is nowhere scrawled with "awful," its checkmarks in the margins are few. While seamless, firm, and assured, the prose is more literate than literary. This is not apt to be a book from which you'll be reading aloud astonishingly insightful or eloquent passages to your companion on the next beach blanket.

Yet quite aside from the quietness of its writing style, this novel seems to have something missing, and what exactly is absent is difficult to pinpoint. Its story is engaging, its characters fully imagined and credible. So I'd tentatively submit that what it may lack is thematic or intellectual - a larger sense of purpose, a rounding on something deeper and more lasting than familial voyeurism. Reading "The Condition" is like watching several programs of "Brothers and Sisters" back to back. Like many a well-made television series, it passes the time agreeably, but it's hard to say what you're left with when you turn off the set.

That said, I like "Brothers and Sisters." A subtle poverty of meat to sink your teeth into may not trouble more vegetarian readers, and any book that passes time pleasantly has much to recommend it. "The Condition" was clearly the product of hard, careful labor; to achieve the above-mentioned seamlessness, the author must have combed assiduously through every line, ensuring that not one clunker survived its final edit. Haigh may not rise to the astonishing level of scientific empathy in Allegra Goodman's gripping "Intuition," but her persuasive, dramatic portrayal of Frank's genetic research probably issues from substantial homework. Each member of the McKotch family rings true, and has been successfully conjured as a now appealing, now exasperating relative in three dimensions. If it is difficult to know what to make of the novel by the final page, it is, after all, rather difficult to know what to make of real families, too.

Lionel Shriver's latest novel is "The Post-Birthday World," now out in paperback.

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