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Originally published Friday, July 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM


Book review

"The Condition": Trajectory of an upscale, dysfunctional family

PEN/Hemingway award winner Jennifer Haigh's novel "The Condition" traces the trajectory of an upscale, dysfunctional family, from the parents' 1970s breakup to their children's troubled passages into adulthood and beyond.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Jennifer Haigh

The author of "The Condition" will read at 7 p.m. July 17

at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333;

"The Condition"

by Jennifer Haigh

Harper, 390 pp., $25.95

The place and the season are familiar: the beaches of Cape Cod during summer. Also familiar is the cast of characters: an upscale, dysfunctional family. However, the similarity with typical summer fluff ends there. Jennifer Haigh's new novel, "The Condition," is a serious work of fiction and, surprisingly, a page-turner as well. Haigh ("Baker Towers") has previously won both the PEN/L.L. Winship Award and the PEN/Hemingway Award, and this novel showcases her considerable talent.

It is 1976. Frank and Paulette McKotch and their three children — Billy, Gwen and Scott — don't yet realize they won't be vacationing together as a family much longer. Frank, an academic and scientist, has an enormous sexual appetite, whereas Paulette is beautiful but repressed. Their differences are magnified in the idyllic vacation setting, and they're soon divorced.

The story resumes in 1997. Billy, now a physician, is the pride of the family. Gwen, who suffers from Turner's syndrome, hasn't grown into either full womanhood or stature, yet quietly manages to make a decent living. Scott is an underachiever and stoner who has fathered several children by a woman not well accepted by his parents.

Each McKotch is afflicted with his or her own private heartache. Paulette's loneliness is relieved only by occasional attention from younger men. Frank, despite a long list of affairs, hasn't succeeded in achieving a lasting relationship. Billy does his best to hide his private life. Gwen takes a pleasure trip to the Caribbean and falls in love with a man, only to undergo a wrenching test of her character. Scott finally discovers his mission in his life. With misfortune awaiting him, his happiness is, however, short-lived.

Will family bonds ever be strong enough to reunite them and see them through their trials? Haigh devotes the remaining pages to an elegant and perceptive exploration of this and other relevant questions.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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