A while back, I was musing what sort of book I could read now that chick lit for 20-somethings has lost its charm, chick lit for 30-somethings doesn't seem to have any, you can't just wait for the rare gems like Life of Pi or The Historian, Southern-style fiction gets old, historical fiction is so hard to sort the good from the bad, I've read out most of my old favorite authors and major works of literature don't always suit. The answer may have come from Jennifer Haigh: family dramas.
Looking at a family over time is a good way to sort through lots of eras and lots of personalities. I found The Condition by her, remaindered at Barnes and Noble for $5, and it was wonderful. The Condition is about a family dealing with Turner's Syndrome, which forever traps women (always women) in the body of a child. They'll have normal intelligence, but physically, they'll never grow up. The middle child, Gwen, is diagnosed when she's thirteen. The diagnosis causes the parents to divorce, which shatters the family's closeness for decades.
At least, that's the family myth. Haigh starts from there and looks deeper. Weren't there signs of trouble between the parents all along? Didn't the father try, in his own scientific way, to be involved? And wouldn't other things have shattered the family's closeness too? Her older brother Billy's insistence on compartmentalizing his life, never letting his family close enough to know that he's gay, making sure he always calls them and never the other way around, lest his partner accidentally answer the phone? Or Scott, the youngest by quite a bit, always at the margins of his family and ultimately stuck in a life he despises? Gwen herself, forcing her own independence from the family for survival's sake but unsure what to do with it?
There's a lot of misery in the book, but a lot of funny moments, too. When Billy finally comes out, in a low-key way by merely bringing his partner to a family gathering and introducing him as such, his mother notes how handsome his partner is, musing "If more men looked like that, maybe there'd be more homosexuals in the world." It ultimately leads to a satisfying conclusion. You walk away feeling the characters will be OK after all.
Baker Towers is a bit more ambiguous at the end. It's the saga of a family of five, but mostly the women, in a coal mining town in Pennsylvania after World War II. It begins with the death of the family patriarch and follows what becomes of the coal mining family for the next few decades. All the men escape, but the women, by and large, cannot. Joyce, the brightest student Bakerton High had ever seen, wants an adventurous life of military service, but family duty and disillusionment bring her back to Bakerton. Dorothy shocked the family by moving to Washington DC and actually doing something with herself, but ultimately couldn't sustain her life on her own. The baby Lucy, however, ultimately chooses to return, in a turn of events that shocks everyone.
Mrs. Kimble was Haigh's much-lauded debut. To put it bluntly, it is the tale of a sociopathic asshole and the lives he ruins. It's a bit hard to take at times. By the time he meets his young third wife, we're cringing. We've seen it all before: how kind, how direct, how caring. How much he seems to have in common with her. How he understands. By then, we know that it's Ken Kimble's particular talent to hone in on subtle clues, to talk his way into his second wife's family business by faking a Jewish mother, for example, or to seem like a free spirit trapped in a conservative community to a young girl who feels the same. We also know that he'll bail when things get tight. We never see his own perspective, just all of his sins, major and minor, through the eyes of his three wives and his oldest son.
Jennifer Haigh was an awesome find. I'm sorry that I initially discovered her in the remainer pile, for now that means I'll have to wait for a new one for quite a while.