Jennifer Haigh’s newest novel explores
family dynamics from all angles
JENNIFER HAIGH HAS long dreamed of having in love it throws everyone (including
the power of invisibility. “I’d love to be able to see Gwen herself) for a loop.
how people behave when they think no one is look- The novel isn’t just about Gwen’s
ing,” says Haigh, 39, a Boston-area writer who has condition, Haigh says. “Every member
penned three novels and numerous short stories. of the McKotch family sees themselves as
By Judi Ketteler
But that invisibility cloak just never came along, so having some sort of condition,” she notes .
she decided to invent her own worlds, populated Haigh wanted to explore this them e
with characters she could peer in on because this is a time when so
undetected. much of what makes peop le
Her latest novel, The Condition, individuals is medicalized. Personality
begins with a snapshot of Paulette and traits become symptoms, and individu-Frank McKotch and their three chil- als need a diagnosis to understand why
dren, Billy, Gwen and Scott, in the they are the way they are. Each family
summer of 1976. It then fast-forwards member’s respective “condition” (
whe-more than 20 years, dropping the ther real or imagined) governs how they
reader into the middle of complex behave toward each other, and how they
dramas unfolding in each of their understandeachother.
lives. No one character dominates the Haigh has been compared to novel-action or gets all the sympathy (or ists such as Anita Shreve and Alice
blame): Readers spend pages and McDermott (McDermott’s Charming
pages in each character’s head, observ- Billy is one of Haigh’s favorites). Novels
ing events from various viewpoints. Jennifer Haigh are where her passion lies these days,
The structure of The Condition—long chapters though she still loves the short-story form (she’s a
devoted to each character—allows readers to get to huge John Cheever fan). “The short story is an
know the family from all angles. “In good fiction, unforgiving form—the reader won’t cut you much
there are no villains,” Haigh says. “It’s the magic of slack—whereas with a novel they’ll hang with you
point of view: You really start to understand why for a while,” she says.
each character behaves the way they do.” That doesn’t mean she’s looking for the easy
This isn’t the first time Haigh has tackled family way out. In fact, for Haigh, the writing process is a
dynamics in novel form. Her last novel, Baker slow chipping away rather than a manic outpouring
Towers, traced a family in a Pennsylvania mining of creativity. “I’m very dogged about writing; I do it
town through the post–World War II years. Even every day,” she says. “And I’m absolutely unable to
though Haigh, a Pennsylvania native, comes from a multitask. Writing happens most naturally for me
small family herself, she finds abundant material to when I’m not doing anything else.” Perhaps that
draw from in her interactions with others—espe- singular focus is the condition Haigh must contend
cially the way it’s possible to glean new insight into with—but it’s certainly not stopping her. C
someone after meeting his or her family. “Maybe I
will always write about families because I’m so fascinated by them. I’ve never come across a boring
family,” she says.
No single thing inspired Haigh to write The
Condition; instead, the novel represents the coming
together of many tidbits of ideas. As a novelist, Haigh
says, “it takes some time before you realize they all can
live in the same story.”
First, there is Turner syndrome, an actual genetic
condition that the middle child, Gwen, suffers from.
Because of a classmate, Haigh had long been aware of
Turner syndrome, which prevents a girl from physically maturing into a woman.
Gwen matures intellectually (in fact, she is quite
bright), but is left with the body and voice of a prepu-bescent girl. “In our culture, women are their bodies,
and I wanted to explore what the world thinks of a
woman like Gwen,” Haigh says. Even Gwen’s own
family doesn’t know what to make of her. She’s perhaps the most interesting character and the most
difficult character to get to know, and when she falls
C OSTCO HAS 50 signed
c opies of Jennifer
H aigh’s The Condition
to give away. To enter,
print your name,
m embership number,
a ddress and daytime
phone number on
a postcard or letter
a nd send it to:
J ennifer Haigh,
T he Costco Connection,
P .O. Box 34088, Seattle,
WA 98124-1088. Or send
an e-mail to giveaway@
costco.com, with “Jennifer
Haigh” in the subject line.
No purchase is necessary. Open
to legal residents of the U.S.
(except Puerto Rico) who are age
18 or older at the time of entry
and who are current Costco
members. One entry per
household. Entries must be
received or postmarked by
August 1, 2008. Winners will be
randomly selected and notified
by mail on or before September
1, 2008. The value of the prize is
$25.95. Void where prohibited.
Winners are responsible for all
applicable federal, state and
local taxes. Odds of winning
depend on the number of eligible
entries received. Employees
of Costco or HarperCollins and
their families are not eligible.
Send your feedback
on this month’s book to:
Cincinnati-based freelance writer Judi Ketteler covers
a wide variety of lifestyle topics.
SO MANY BOOKS cross my desk that it’s hard to imagine reading all of them—much less any of them twice.
But this month’s Book Buyer’s Pick, Jennifer Haigh’s The
Condition, is different. As a big fan of her previous novels, I wasn’t surprised to be bowled over by The Condition. The moment I turned the last page, I knew I’d
revisit the McKotch family sometime soon—steeping
myself in their lives. Much like a film you want to
rewatch to catch things missed the first time, this novel
is so rich and detailed that I’m sure I’m not the only one
who will reread it and love it just as much the second
Haigh’s The Condition is available at most Costco
warehouses and on costco.com.
Costco Book Buyer