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Family life is never easy, as Tolstoy once so eloquently expressed. But matters are much more complicated when parents and siblings are dealing with a child who has developmental issues, as author Jennifer Haigh makes clear in her latest novel “The Condition.”
The book, out in July from HarperCollins, opens in 1976 in Cape Cod, where an air of foreboding hovers over Paulette, Frank, and their three children Billy, Gwen and Scottie as they arrive at their summer house to celebrate Paulette’s 39th birthday. Her marital problems with Frank seem on the brink of exploding, and it suddenly becomes apparent the 12-year-old Gwen is shockingly smaller than most girls her age. The rest of the narrative unfolds in the late Nineties, when we learn that Gwen, in fact, has Turner’s syndrome, a disease that halts her physical development prepuberty. But while hers is the namesake “condition” of the novel’s title, the other family members are no less stricken with problems of their own: Paulette and Frank get divorced, Billy grapples with his sexuality, and Scottie has a son with ADD.
“What happens with a lot of families where there’s a very obvious external problem like an illness is that that becomes the focus of everything. It’s so easy for members of this family to blame everything on Gwen’s Turner’s syndrome,” explains Haigh. “The conditions that the other members of the family are struggling with are less obvious and probably harder to confront.”
The theme of familial relations has worked its way into much of Haigh’s work. Her 2005 “Baker Towers” focused on a coal mining clan in western Pennsylvania, similar to the one in which she grew up. Haigh, the daughter of an English teacher father and librarian mother, was raised in a household full of books. She wrote short stories from an early age, but not necessarily with professional intentions. Haigh graduated from Dickinson College with a degree in French and headed off to France on a Fulbright Scholarship to study and teach English. After returning to the States, she spent her 20s as, variously, a waitress, a secretary and a magazine writer for publications like Self. In 2000, she was accepted to the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which led to her first novel, “Mrs. Kimble,” the winner of a PEN/Hemingway Award.
In the current climate of barely legal literary prodigies, the 30s may seem a late decade in which to embark on such a career. But Haigh has no regrets about taking her time to arrive at fiction writing.
“I wasn’t ready to do it earlier than that. I don’t think of novel writing particularly as a young person’s game. There are people who do it well at a young age, but I think they’re really in the minority. And I just didn’t know enough about life,” says Haigh, 39, who now lives in Boston. “It’s something that I had intended to do for a long time and thought, some day, I will do. But there’s a statute of limitations on potential. When you’re 22, you can think of yourself as a promising young writer and go do something else. But you can’t call yourself a promising young writer at 50.”