Daughter's condition leads to breakup and reunion of the McKotches
June 29, 2008 4:00 AM
Author Jennifer Haigh
By Clara Silverstein
Opening with the intrigues of an extended family at its Cape Cod vacation home, Jennifer Haigh's new novel starts out like a gossipy summer beach read.
This is misleading, because Haigh has greater ambitions for her third book. As in her previous ones, "Mrs. Kimble" and "Baker Towers," Haigh probes the inner lives of characters in domestic relationships.
By Jennifer Haigh HarperCollins ($25.95)
For the protagonists here, Frank and Paulette McKotch and their three children, the beach house is just the set-up for the rest of the action, which takes place 20 years later.
"The Condition" refers to the medical problem that afflicts Gwen, the middle McKotch child and the only girl. Turner's syndrome, a genetic defect, has prevented her body from maturing. Frank, a research scientist, wants as much medical intervention as possible.
Paulette wants to protect her daughter and worries that too much attention to the disease will make her feel flawed and inferior. Their different approaches to Gwen -- and to life -- lead to a bitter divorce.
In the second section of the novel, set in 1997, Frank and Paulette are each living on their own in the Boston area, and the children have grown up and moved away. Everyone is estranged from each other.
Frank, a workaholic in the throes of a mid-life crisis, becomes desperate to make a lasting name for himself.
Paulette holes up in a drafty, mansion filled with antiques and pines for the handyman whose specialty is historic preservation.
The eldest son, Billy, a doctor, lives with a man in New York but keeps his gay identity secret.
Gwen leads a lonesome, constricted life that revolves around her job at an anthropology museum in Pittsburgh.
The youngest son, Scott, barely past his days as a druggie, teaches at a prep school, is married to the ill-tempered Penny, and raising two rambunctious children.
The point of view alternates among these five characters. Haigh succeeds best with Gwen and Scott. The other characters seem less fully rendered, especially Paulette.
Haigh also conveys a lot of background about each character, which makes the writing seem more like filling in an outline than deeply exploring different points of view. This is most evident in the novel's first section, which goes into tedious detail about Paulette's family members, who are barely mentioned again.
Haigh is at her best in the third section of the novel, titled "The Cure," when she describes a relationship between Gwen and a diver she meets during a tropical vacation. Diving becomes a metaphor for Gwen's self-discovery.
The romance finally forces everyone in Gwen's family to start communicating with each other. There is plenty of parallel drama -- a professional crisis threatens to undo Frank's career; one of Scott's children needs special attention and so does Scott's marriage; and all is not well with Billy and his lover.
Here, the plot finally gains momentum, and by the time everyone comes together in one place again, all have changed their views of each other -- and of themselves.
Haigh sets up quite a challenge for herself in telling a sprawling family story from five points of view. Her tendency to get bogged down with background details about each character, and to tell instead of show their behavior, keeps her from fully succeeding.
Yet the central question of the story -- how a child whose genetic condition keeps her physically immature can finally be allowed to grow up -- is compelling. So is the personal growth of the McKotch family members as they confront it.
Clara Silverstein, a Pittsburgh native, is author of the memoir "White Girl: A Story of School Desegregation" (University of Georgia Press) and two cookbooks.