By January 1, 2009 1 Comments Read More →

A Mesmerizing Author

I recently finished reading two of Jennifer Haigh’s three novels, The Condition and Mrs. Kimble, and I am halfway through the third book, Baker Towers.  I have to say that I have great admiration for this author.  I think the best way of describing her writing is mesmerizing.  She has an uncanny ability for describing characters and settings with just a few brilliantly chosen words.  Somehow she is always able to come up with the perfect detail to capture a particular moment, and often, it is a situation that is singularly disturbing or uncomfortable.  This may not be every reader’s cup of tea, but it certainly rivets me to the page and keeps me plunging forward to find out what happens next.

The Condition is her most recent book, published earlier this year, and since I read it first, I found myself comparing her other books to it.  Indeed, I found The Condition extremely satisfying, so my expectation for the earlier novels was quite high.  Mrs. Kimble won the PEN/Hemingway Prize for an outstanding first novel, and I think it deserved the award.  It is not quite as strong as The Condition, but in some ways, it is more daring in its conception — it tells the story of three women who marry the same man, and in the case of the second and third wives, there is much they do not know about his past.  When they do learn his secrets, of course, their relationships are changed dramatically.  The reader knows only as much about this strange and manipulative man as his wives are able to uncover — we never get inside his head to learn what motivates him.

So, in an unusual way, Mrs. Kimble is about a dysfunctional family — and it has that quality in common with The Condition, which is a close-up examination of a family that falls apart because of the parents’ inability to accept the physical impairment of their only daughter.  The title ostensibly relates to Gwen’s illness, but it also applies to each of the major characters — the parents and their three children — since they all have emotional problems that affect their life choices; that is, each one is grappling with a “condition.”  The status of the family, as well, represents a “condition” — a shattering and breaking apart, followed by tremendous alientation.   This story would make for a wonderful book discussion, one I hope to lead in the future.

I think Mrs. Kimble also has great discussion potential.  One of the aspects I most admire in Haigh’s writing is the way she develops minor characters with just a few strokes of her pen.  Baker Towers is a family story, too — but so far, it seems like more of a conventional family saga, set in a mining town in Pennsylvania during the World War II years.  She’s clearly interested in families, exploring their differences and conflicts, how they split apart and then reconcile. 

So if you’re unfamiliar with Jennifer Haigh, I commend her to you.  Readers who appreciate compelling characters and dramatic storylines, pick up one of her novels — you are in for a treat!



About the Author:

Ted Balcom lives in Arlington Heights, IL and conducts workshops on leading book discussions, about which he has also published a book: Book Discussions for Adults: A Leader’s Guide (American Library Association, 1992).

1 Comment on "A Mesmerizing Author"

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  1.' Gayle says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I read The Condition and Mrs. Kimble this year, and thought they were both very good. I am looking forward to reading Baker Towers.

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