THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

A family's fault lines, newly exposed

ROXANA ROBINSON ROXANA ROBINSON (MARION ETTLINGER)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jessica Treadway
July 6, 2008

Cost
By Roxana Robinson
Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 420 pp., $25

Halfway through Roxana Robinson's absorbing new novel, "Cost," Steven Lambert wonders, "How did you decide when you should take over someone's life?" He soon finds out the answer when his divorced parents, Julia and Wendell, use every means at their disposal to garner control over their younger son, Steven's brother, Jack, whose life is being consumed by his heroin addiction. Shortly thereafter, the original question transforms into a new one: What did you do when, having taken over someone's life, you failed in your efforts to fix it? This dilemma - in the context of a family affected at every turn by Jack's descent - becomes, in Robinson's hands, fertile territory in which to explore the nature and limits of our commitments to each other.

Though Robinson moves among the perspectives of all the Lambert family members, most of the air time belongs to Julia, the mother tortured by the knowledge she tries mightily, at first, to deny: that her son Jack - who may be the product of her only extramarital affair - has been lying to and stealing from her for a long time, in the service of his need for the drug he conceives of as his "bed of crimson joy."

When the book opens, Julia, who lives in Manhattan, is hosting her parents at her vacation home in Maine, navigating the rocky emotional terrain of her mother's increasing forgetfulness and a domineering, judgmental father. When Steven comes to visit and tells his mother that Jack is addicted to heroin, Julia enlists his help in luring Jack up from Brooklyn so the family can have a talk with him. Her ex-husband, Wendell, who is remarried to a therapist, convinces Julia that they must, instead, have a professional intervention with a drug counselor. The counselor, Ralph Carpenter, is a former addict who enters the picture after Jack disappears from the hospital where he was enduring the symptoms of withdrawal. "Right now, you no longer know your son," Carpenter tells the distraught parents. "He's been taken over by something stronger than he is."

The rest of the novel addresses, in multiple perspectives, what happens to a family that "had never pulled together in its life," as Julia's sister Harriet reflects. We are privy to Julia's and Wendell's guilt and anger; Steven's guilt and his resentment that throughout his life, "there was always an emergency" involving Jack; Grandmother Katharine's confusion and Grandfather Edward's disdain, as a neurological surgeon, for the "useless strategies" Carpenter proposes to treat Jack's addiction; and Harriet's resolution that she "simply would not engage," other than superficially, with any members of her family.

We also hear - in disturbing detail - Jack's own point of view, as he is undergoing heroin withdrawal, stealing a car and breaking into a pharmacy to find drugs, and, perhaps most poignantly, ignoring his parents when they call his name on a Brooklyn street corner, desperate to track him down as he suffers the throes of physical and mental desire for heroin.

For the most part, Robinson is effective in training her literary lens on the disparate family members' souls - though there are a couple of pronounced exceptions. The perspective often changes abruptly, from one sentence to the next within a scene, so we know that the author has claimed the luxury to enter anyone's head at any time; there are some passages that cry out for such a shift, which the author doesn't supply. This occurs most notably when a frustrated Wendell tells Carpenter that learning of Jack's addiction is "like hearing now that he's Chinese, or that he's not my son." Because we have already heard Julia speculate on the possibility that Jack is not Wendell's son, we expect and deserve to witness her interior reaction to this statement, but it is glaringly absent.

That said, Robinson's skills far outweigh the narrative missteps. She is excellent at creating suspense, as when Julia and Wendell have to enlist the help of a neighbor to rescue their sons, who are stranded in the family's boat too late at night and risk being carried out to sea. Then, of course, there is the question of what will happen to Jack - whether he will kick his habit, survive while sustaining his addiction, or die of it. By the time we learn the answer, we have a strong sense of what any of these outcomes will mean for the characters we've come to know intimately, and we are invested in their efforts to bring Jack back - figuratively - to shore.

Toward the end of the novel, Harriet meditates on the nature of her relationships with her parents, her sister, her ex-brother-in-law, and her nephews. "These were the people to whom she was closest and most painfully distant; the people she most longed to have near, whose touch was unbearable to her," Robinson writes. "She could not bear to meet their eyes; their presence was essential. What was the cost of these connections, the cost of severing them?" "Cost" does not provide a definitive answer to this question, but it goes a long way in examining what members of a family can be, to one another, when faced with the direst threat.

Jessica Treadway is the author of "Absent Without Leave" and "And Give You Peace." She teaches at Emerson College.

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