Monday, March 2, 2009

The Condition

I recently finished reading The Condition by Jennifer Haigh, which I had picked up off the community bookshelf in the Amtrak station in Denver just after Christmas. I don't know if the book itself was pretentious, or just the picture of Ms. Haigh on the back jacket flap. That could have colored the whole reading.

Perhaps the problem lies with me, who doesn't have a lot of innate sympathy for the struggles of people who own vacation homes on New England beaches and can afford to spend their entire summers there. Not that I can't develop sympathy for them; I just don't naturally think, "Wow, those people must have a hard life."

It doesn't help that Haigh made the central character of the book -- the one around whom the entire plot twists -- the least sympathetic. One wonders if this was a natural aspect of the character's personality, as Haigh suggested, or whether it was Haigh's inability to fully sympathize with someone who is a statistical anomaly.

Just so you're not completely in the dark and wondering, you can read a preview of the book here, or I can explain to you that the central character has a genetic aberration known as Turner's syndrome, in which a woman has only one complete X chromosome. (She may have a second, incomplete X chromosome, but this isn't necessarily the case.) Everyone in her family treats her as if she's from another planet, and Haigh does, too.

I cared so little about the character Haigh painted that the only real reason I got through the book was that the train I was on between Denver and Chicago had an ice-storm-induced eight-hour delay. By the time I got off the train, I was far enough into it that I thought I should finish it. A completionist, I suppose.

I read most of the rest during a night of insomnia. But I found myself skipping chapters to find out whether her brother would get back with his boyfriend, and then I stopped a few chapters short of the end when I knew the answer. Once that was known, I felt no concern for the fate of the other characters. Their stories had stopped being compelling -- well, those that ever had been.

I went back and read the skipped parts and the last chapter last week when I had to stay up late drinking a gallon of horrible-tasting liquid in preparation for a colonoscopy. Everything that happened in those chapters is exactly what one would have expected, which is either to Haigh's credit for creating consistent characters, or to her detriment for creating a story that lacks dramatic tension. Book groups: Discuss!

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