Until one summer afternoon by the sea in 1976, the McKotch family seems on top of the world, despite the growing fractures and fault lines running invisibly beneath of the surface of a quietly dysfunctional New England family. Watching his daughter swim next to her cousin, it becomes apparent to Frank that something is seriously wrong with her. Twelve year old Gwen is far too small for age. She has Turner syndrome, a genetic disorder that would keep her in a child's body all her life. The discovery of her condition triggers the gradual unraveling and self-destruction of the family, setting in motion the plot of the novel "The Condition" by Jennifer Haig.
In lesser hands, this could have been an average tale. Jennifer Haig wisely avoids the temptation to focus on Gwen and her medical condition as the main event, instead pushing it into the background to allow the reader to focus first on her mother, father, and two brothers. “The Condition” isn't just about Gwen. It is about each family member and how they respond to change and the challenges of lives not going as planned or expected. Frank, the father, is a workaholic scientist with a roving eye for the ladies, though he remains curiously faithful. Paulette, his wife, is very prim, prudish, and quite paranoid about Frank's affections. Billy, one of the brothers, proves late in the book to have attention deficit disorder. Scott dithers over whether or not to tell his family he is gay. The problems facing each character propels them along disastrous courses like billiard balls, finally coming to an uneasy conclusion at the end.
Each family member tends to be guided or controlled by unwarranted assumptions. Breaking apart those assumptions is the key for the family finally coming together. Gwen, for example, assumes her medical condition and the arguments over it led to her parents divorce. She lives a withdrawn, secluded life with as little contact with other humans as possible. When she falls in love during a vacation to the Caribbean, she as unprepared for it as the rest of her family, leading to an almost tragic misunderstanding.
The book is delightfully understated, never descending to histrionics, taking its time to develop, concentrating on the characters, which is a welcome change. As a result, it seldom sounds wrong notes, though when it does, they are very striking. Some have complained the ending wraps things up too neatly and there's some justice to that. “The Condition” is a family drama that is less Tolstoy or Chekhov and more Anne Tyler or Carol Shields, putting the drama on the low burner. Well written, filled with moments of acute observations and populated with characters more real than likeable, the books stays with you as an entertaining tale.
It may start slow and simmer along until the climax, but once you adjust to the leisurely pace, it isn't that bad. It certainly stands as an antidote to the soap opera tendency of some popular fiction to demand high wire drama at every turn. Recommended.