Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Condition

I wrote recently about Jennifer Haigh and her latest novel, Faith, which simply knocked me out. For that reason I made a concerted effort to go back and read at least one of her earlier books and decided on The Condition because I fancy myself an amateur doctor (tongue in cheek) and find all things medical absolutely fascinating!

The joke was on me. This book isn't actually about a medical condition at all even though Turner's Disease is the catalyst that brings down the house of cards the McKotch family has constructed. The actual condition is a disease of the soul that infects this family that, from the outside, appears to have it all. And this, after all, is the theme of Faith as well.

I often wonder who writes the jacket blurbs that are supposed to catch our attention and get us to pick up a book. The publisher? Have they even read their own authors? These little teasers often hold no relation to the story inside the covers.

Paulette and Frank McKotch have great pedigrees, three kids, perfectly spaced, she's from a long line of New Englanders, he's got the brains and the job that provides the life Paulette has come to expect. But one summer while vacationing on the Cape, a well-meaning in-law remarks on their daughter Gwen, in particular about her size.

The fact is that Gwen isn't growing like the other girls, no budding breasts, no maturing voice or filled out buns. Puberty had eluded her and no one had even noticed.

Frank is a scientist and goes at this problem from a researcher's point of view while Paulette puts her head in the sand, selfishly acting as if Gwen's "condition" is a reflection on her. The strain on the McKotch family begins to tear at the fabric of the marriage and quite honestly, neither Frank nor Paulette is a very sympathetic character, but readers will hang in there for the kids, Gwen, older brother Billy and baby Scott, whose lives and conditions of their own are revealed in varying chapters.

Jennifer Haigh excels at empathizing with families in crisis. Her writing may be painfully realistic but readers sense that she loves her characters with all their warts and wrinkles. She is a masterful storyteller of the human condition on a par with Jonathan Franzen in my opinion. The Franzen of Freedom that is, not of The Corrections.

Looking at my list of books read in 2011, I can see plainly that my taste veers way too much toward the emotionally draining side of the spectrum. Even my movie tastes are heavy going - Don and I saw The Descendents today and were not feeling the love. I may have to make a New Year's Resolution - something I don't even believe in - to read some light, uplifting books for a while. I finished Absolution for Library Journal, an outstanding, but angst filled debut whose review I'll finish up this week.

This morning I found just a glimmer of hope in the ending of Lloyd Jones' Hand Me Down World and this afternoon I whipped through another bummer called, unfairly, The Lover's Dictionary.

Tomorrow I will begin number 100, an upbeat non-fiction book called French Dirt , about a man who moves to a tiny village in France, possibly one of the ones Don and I biked through several years ago, and learns to love the people through working on their farms and falls in love with the country for the smell of the soil. Now that's something I can relate to!

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