I’ve always found it interesting how siblings who grew up in the same home, with the same parents, can experience completely different childhoods. Parents, despite their best intentions, cannot possibly treat all of their wonderful, unique, frustrating, children in exactly the same way. The result is that everyone in a family ends up with memories of events that don’t quite match up. I think this concept is a good place to start from when you read The Condition.
Paulette and Frank got married, and had children, in the 1970’s. The book stars with Paulette and her sister Martine who are driving to to Cape Cod to spend some time in a cottage by the beach. It is the traditional vacation for this extended family. Paulette’s children, Billy (age 14), Gwen (age 12), are in the backseat. The youngest sibling, Scotty (age 9), has been relegated to the rear of the vehicle because he is so energetic and excited that he is impossible to sit next to.
In addition to Paulette and Martine, there is their brother, Roy, his wife and their children. Later, Frank joins them. What was supposed to be another idyllic vacation turns serious after Frank voices concern about Gwen’s health. He notices that her cousin, who is just a few months older than her, is starting to hit puberty. Gwen, however, still looks like a very little girl. This observation eventually leads to the diagnosis of Gwen’s condition, a situation that affects the entire family.
Paulette and Frank fight about whether or not to take Gwen to doctors. Paulette wants to believe that nothing is wrong with Gwen, that she is just a “late bloomer” (like Paulette herself was). Frank, who is a scientist, insists that Gwen be taken to see doctors (and later, specialists). He cannot understand why Paulette doesn’t want Gwen to get the help she needs. Eventually, it is determined that Gwen has Turner Syndrome.
Each parent treats Gwen in a different way. Paulette becomes overly protective of Gwen. This situation lingers long after Gwen becomes an adult. Paulette is unable to allow Gwen to “grow up”. Gwen is stubborn enough to seek out her own independence anyway. When the two of them get together, Gwen finds herself regressing into the angsty, angry, person she becomes when she is around her mother. She hates this, but cannot seem to stop herself. As a form of protection (both with Paulette and with everyone else in her life) Gwen chooses to simply be silent. She doesn’t continue conversations and doesn’t offer information about her personal life.
Frank, on the other hand, is able to answer all of Gwen’s questions about her condition honestly and accurately. He holds nothing back. In this way, Frank respects his daughter as a person more than Paulette is able to.
It is not unusual for a couple to split up after discovering that one of their children has a serious health condition (physical or mental). Therefore, it is unsurprising that Paulette and Frank end up divorced. The twist here is that the problems between the two of them started years before either had the slightest idea that Gwen had Turner Syndrome.
Frank was constantly working at the lab, unable to understand his wife’s “moods”, and convinced that Paulette is a prude. Paulette felt ignored by her husband, and was upset by his “roving eye”, and unable to grasp why he can’t understand that he is making her upset. There is a vivid example of the way these two people failed to connect. When the two of them have sex, Frank says “I have been thinking about this all day”. Paulette wishes he would say “I have been thinking about you all day.”
The book jumps from the 1970’s to the 1990’s. The three siblings are all adults now, each with his or her own life. Scotty is married with children, working in a job that makes him miserable, after years of being a “slacker”. His son gets in trouble at school, which leads Scotty to discover that his son has a condition – one that Scotty only now realizes he also has.
Billy is coming to terms with his sexuality (which he thinks of as a condition that needs to be managed). He has a wonderful, beautiful boyfriend named Sri. Their relationship is a little bit stunted because Billy insists on keeping his personal life, and his family, completely separate. Billy believes that Frank would never accept having a gay son. Frank, we later learn, hadn’t ever given thought to whether or not his son was gay. It simply never occurred to him.
Gwen, with help from friends of her parents, gets a job working in a museum (behind the scenes.) She lives alone, spends her days at work mostly alone, and this situation is fine with her. One day, she meets a new co-worker, a woman named Heidi, who pushes past Gwen’s silences and refusals to be social. The two eventually become friends. Heidi accepts Gwen as she is.
It is this friendship that leads Gwen to do something completely out of character. Heidi goes to a resort with a friend of hers every year. This year, she can’t go – but the whole thing has been paid for. She convinces Gwen to go in her place in part by pointing out the resort includes diving (something Gwen loves to do and is very accomplished at.) This strange quirk of events causes not only Gwen, but also her siblings and parents, to “break the mold” of their lives and finally move on.
The thing I liked best about this book is that it wasn’t about a parent’s lament over a child that seemed healthy but actually had a condition. Gwen is a strong, smart, character all on her own. She could have allowed her mother to infantilize her forever, but instead consistently pushes for her independence.
The other thing I really liked about this book was how the characters evolved. Each goes through a series of heartbreaks (some romantic, some occupational) and eventually gets over it. They all “become themselves” instead of the role that they were put into years ago when Gwen was first diagnosed with Turner Syndrome.
I’d also like to add an amusing, somewhat unrelated, thing about this book. I bought the hardcover version from a thrift store. In the middle of the book, I found a piece of paper that was too big to have been used as a bookmark.
The page came from “The Costco Connection” (from July of 2008) and it features a review of The Condition. Someone specifically sought out this book after reading the review. It appears they started reading it, but never finished (since the paper was stuck in a chapter slightly before the middle of the book). It makes me wonder what happened that caused an interested reader to suddenly stop reading this book. Perhaps the reader got caught up in their own family dynamics drama.