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FICTION

The Cost of Silence

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Reviewed by Chris Bohjalian
Sunday, July 13, 2008

THE CONDITION

By Jennifer Haigh

This Story

Harper. 390 pp. $25.95

"Happy families are all alike," Tolstoy famously observed at the start of Anna Karenina, but "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Unless, of course, you're dealing with repressed New Englanders: Then the unhappy families are pretty alike, too. We are -- and I say this with only love and respect for my family and my in-laws -- uptight, priggish and determined either to sublimate our anxieties with vigorous physical activity in the fresh air or drown them in a steady stream of gin and tonics.

The Condition, the title of Jennifer Haigh's third novel, is ostensibly a reference to Gwen, the middle child of Frank and Paulette McKotch of Concord, Mass. Gwen has Turner syndrome, a chromosomal abnormality that means she will never go through puberty. She will, in essence, have a woman's brain and a girl's body. As her father, a scientist, observes, she will always have "the powerful build of an Olympic child gymnast: the narrow hips, the shield chest." She will never be able to have children and won't top five feet in height.

The title, however, is actually a reference to the condition of the whole McKotch clan and the ramifications of their constitutional, inbred inability to communicate.

The book opens with a prologue set in 1976, when the family has gathered at Paulette's family's rambling house on Cape Cod. In this ancestral setting, her husband, Frank, is an interloper of sorts, a boy from coal-country Pennsylvania. Through hard work and brains he wound up at MIT, and while a student there fell in love with Paulette, who was at Wellesley. Gathered with the McKotch family are Paulette's grown siblings and their families. But the important people Haigh introduces us to are Paulette and Frank, whose marriage is starting to fray, and their three children: Billy, 14, the golden boy with promise; Gwen, 12, ominously underdeveloped; and Scotty, 9, a rambunctious, difficult boy. We get a taste of the sorts of people they will become as adults, when the novel proper begins in 1997.

Twenty years later the house on the Cape has been sold, and Frank and Paulette have divorced. On the surface their marriage collapsed because of the differing ways they cope with Gwen's diagnosis: Frank is clinical and realistic, approaching his daughter's situation as he would a scientific conundrum in the lab; Paulette first denies there is an issue to be discussed and then tries to infantilize Gwen. But in reality their relationship succumbed to the simple differences between Frank and Paulette. Frank is part hot-blooded frat boy and part cold-blooded lab rat. Paulette is the sort of woman who believes any woman's best color is beige and wants at all costs to avoid any conversations about the body.

Meanwhile, Billy has become a successful New York cardiologist who has hidden from his family the fact that he is gay. Gwen is working at a museum in Pittsburgh as a collections specialist, where she can dress in blue jeans and Pirates sweatshirts and not have to interact with anyone. She has no boyfriend, few female friends and has withdrawn from even the idea that she will ever have a lover or a husband. And then there is Scotty, who dropped out of college, ran away to the West and wound up married to a drifter with an endless supply of marijuana. Now he and his wife have two kids, he has finished college, and he teaches English at a third-rate private school, the antithesis of the old-money, New England boarding school from which he and his brother graduated.

And, alas, not one of the five is happy.

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 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.

The novel moves at a leisurely pace with little occurring through the first half. In the second half, however, the story gathers momentum when Gwen visits a Caribbean island where a handsome, charismatic scuba instructor suddenly and inexplicably falls in love with her. She chooses to stay with him on the island, setting off a seismic shift that causes the rest of her family to lose their balance and make choices that range from merely shortsighted to appalling.

And then we come to the end, which does not feel fully earned or very likely. But Haigh is such a gifted chronicler of the human condition and I cared so much for each member of the McKotch clan that I was nonetheless happy to have spent time with them, and to have witnessed them growing up and old and, finally, learning to accept who they are. ·

Chris Bohjalian is the author of 11 novels, including "Skeletons at the Feast."


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