Novel Addresses The Human 'Condition' Jennifer Haigh's new novel, The Condition, is about a girl who has a genetic disorder that stops her development just before puberty. The "condition" gives her family an excuse to resist facing each other and fall apart.

Novel Addresses The Human 'Condition'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/93226277/93226265" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Now to a new novel about a family struggling with another difficult ailment. The book, "The Condition" by Jennifer Haigh. And the condition itself, it's called Turner Syndrome, a genetic disorder that stops girls' development just before puberty.

Martha Woodroof of member station WMRA has the story.

MARTHA WOODROOF: Gwen McKotch just isn't growing up. She remains little girl short and little girl shaped. Her father, Frank, a research scientist at MIT, insists that they face their daughter's tardy puberty and find out its cause. Her mother, Paulette, who prefers to politely ignore unpleasant reality, reluctantly agrees.

Some months of testing later, Gwen's condition is named. She has Turner syndrome. Novelist Jennifer Haigh.

Ms. JENNIFER HAIGH (Author, "The Condition"): In this section, Gwen is remembering what it felt like to be diagnosed with Turner syndrome. She had just turned 13 when she was diagnosed. Suddenly everything about her had an explanation - her size, her shape, her dramatic entry in the world - the tiny preemie in an incubator.

The time she'd gotten lost in Star Market was no longer just a story; it was evidence of her spatial difficulties, her non-verbal learning impairment.

WOODROOF: The McKotch parents - ill-matched at the best of times - haven't a clue about how to come together in order to support their daughter.

Ms. HAIGH: Her parents argued. After each argument, her father dragged her to another doctor - an endocrinologist, a pediatric cardiologist. Blood was taken, an ultrasound image of her kidneys, X-rays to see the bones of her hand. The injections would make her grow several inches if she was lucky.

Of course, being Gwen, she was not lucky. A year later she had grown less than an inch. Gwen had Turner's. Her parents argued. Her father left.

Ms. CINDY DUNNAM (Executive Director, Turner Syndrome Society): Turner Syndrome's quite common - one out of 2,000 live birth females.

WOODROOF: Cindy Dunnam is executive director of the Turner Syndrome Society, and mother of a 10-year-old with the condition. She's read Jennifer Haigh's novel and says the failed fictional McKotch marriage, sadly, is realistic.

Ms. DUNNAM: I would say two people just have to be able to work together extremely well. And if a marriage isn't made stronger than most of the time they have very difficult issues and a lot of times the marriages just don't make it.

WOODROOF: Dunnam says most doctors don't know much about Turner Syndrome, so a lot of the parents she deals with are desperate for information. A diagnosis is particularly hard to deal with, Dunnam says, because there's no known cause, no known cure and predictability about its physical effect, other than short stature and the absence of puberty.

Ms. DUNNAM: Almost all people know about Down syndrome, though when it comes to Turner Syndrome, every person that calls that has had a daughter or is diagnosed themselves, they're very scared and fearful because they have never heard of Turner Syndrome.

WOODROOF: Novelist Jennifer Haigh went to elementary school with a girl with this genetic condition, although she says she didn't know there was a name for it at the time. Many years later Haigh came across an article about Turner Syndrome, which triggered a flash of recognition and her imagination.

Ms. HAIGH: I'm fascinated by the kind of dissonance there between being emotionally an adult woman intellectually, having those capacities, those feelings, those desires, and being physically kind of stuck at this earlier point in life.

WOODROOF: In Haigh's novel, Turner Syndrome gives the McKotches an excuse to resist facing other more pressing problems. The parents, soon divorced, hunker down behind their emotional barricades. The three children, Gwen and brothers Billy and Scott, are left to figure out for themselves how to mature.

The novel, "The Condition," is an ensemble piece. There are no villains here. In the center of this family's sad dance of distance is Gwen's mysterious disorder.

Ms. HAIGH: All these people think of themselves as defective and they think of each other as even more defective. And the book is really about them learning to accept themselves as they are and learning to accept the other members of the family as they are.

WOODROOF: What Jennifer Haigh is really addressing in their novel appears to be the human condition. Whether in the end our desire to have functional relationships will trump all our excuses not to.

For NPR News, I'm Martha Woodroof.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.