Cost: A Novel

Cost: A Novel

by Roxana Robinson

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Julia Lambert, an artist, is spending the summer in her old Maine farmhouse. During a visit from her elderly parents, she hopes to mend complicated relationships with her domineering father, a retired neurosurgeon, and her gentle mother, who is descending into the fog of Alzheimer's. But a shattering revelation intrudes: Julia's son, Jack, has spiraled into heroin addiction. In her attempts to save him, Julia marshals help from her loosely knit clan, but Jack's addiction courses through the family with a devastating energy, sweeping them all into a world of confusion, fear, and obsession. In Cost, Roxana Robinson applies her "trademark gifts as an intelligent, sensitive analyst of family life" and creates a "warmly human and deeply satisfying book, marking a new level of ambition and achievement for this talented author" (Chicago Tribune).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312428464
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 05/26/2009
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 965,375
Product dimensions: 5.52(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.82(d)

About the Author

ROXANA ROBINSON is the author of three earlier novels, three collections of short stories, and the biography Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, More, and Vogue, among other publications.

Read an Excerpt

Her memory was gone.

It came to Katharine like a soft shock, like a blow inside the head. She was in the yellow bedroom at her daughter’s house in Maine, standing at the bureau, getting ready for lunch. She’d just finished doing her hair, smoothing it back to her modest bun, tucking in the small combs to hold it in place. The combs were hardly necessary now, her long, fine hair—still mostly black—had turned wispy and weightless, and no longer needed restraint. But vanity, like beauty, is partly habit, and Katharine still put the combs carefully into her thinning hair, though now they slipped easily out, then vanished, beneath the furniture, against the patterns of the rugs.

Hair done, combs briefly and precariously in place, Katharine looked around for her scarf. It was an old soft cotton one, a blue paisley square. She’d worn it once at a birthday party, and now, for a moment, in her daughter’s guest room with its faded yellow walls, the sunlight slanting onto the worn wooden floors, the idea of the scarf and the party seemed confusingly to merge. She had a sudden sense of the party blooming around her—a blur of voices, laughter, a fireplace—a sense of pleasure at being with these people, whoever they were. Green demitasse cups, those tiny tinkling spoons, a tall brass lamp by the fireplace—or was that somewhere else?

She tried to remember herself further into it, but could not. She could not mentally arrive at the event. She stood at the bureau, her mind groping. Everything else about the party—whom it was for, when it had happened, where—had vanished. The small, hard, bright facts, like nails that should connect it to the rest of her life, were missing. The place where her memory had been was gone, blurrily erased, like a window grayed by mist. Beyond it was unknown space.

Other things, besides that party, were vanishing—the names and places she depended on, the familiar links that made up her past. This was happening gradually, as though pieces of her mind were breaking off and floating away, like ice in a river. She couldn’t stop it, she didn’t want to think about it.

But now, standing at the bureau, this realization rose up around her, closing in on her like a high breaking wave. She felt as though she were being held helpless and still, while the rest of her awareness slid past her, increasingly fast. Who were you if you had no past? If you existed nowhere but in this room, right now? If your life were being swept away from you?

Katharine stood still, disoriented by the thought. She held on to the bureau with both hands, bracing herself, as though this were a fast current she might be able to resist. She looked down at the hands be-fore her: they did not seem to be hers. They were mottled and swollen, slow with arthritis, the knuckles thick. She’d always had graceful hands, pale, with long narrow fingers. Hadn’t she?

She stood without moving in her daughter’s yellow guest room, grip-ping the bureau and looking down at her things as though they might keep her steady: the blue cotton scarf, which was right in front of her; the spray bottle of lavender cologne—the scent reminding her of her mother—missing its cap; a round silver pin etched with leaves—a birthday present, years ago, but from whom? One of the children, she thought: it still held a strong charge of affection. She saw all these things in front of her, whole, present, while that thought ranged greedily through her mind—radical, bewildering, calamitous—her memory was gone.

Julia, in the kitchen, was making lunch, moving quickly, her movements hurried, slightly inept: having her parents in the house put her on high alert, her pulse thrumming. When they were here, there was not enough of her. She should be everywhere, all the time—in the bed-room, helping her mother find a lost comb; in the cellar, looking for a tool for her father; out on the porch, quickly sweeping it before lunch; in the kitchen, fixing meals.

Julia wanted her parents here—she loved them—but their presence altered her gravity. She had to struggle to stay upright. As she swung open the door of the refrigerator, leaning into its chilly radiance, taking out the wrapped packet of ham, the mayonnaise, she could feel the beat of anxiety, the hurrying of her pulse. Down the hall, in the yellow room, were her parents, breathing, speaking, about to need something.

What she felt when her parents were here was something large and unsayable, confusing, nearly unbearable. Affection, anxiety, resentment— although she was an adult, with her own children, nearly grown, and she should long ago have moved beyond this confusion. But her parents’ presence still unsettled her. When they were here, the house seemed small and ill equipped, the doors put on backward, the light switches unconnected, a troubling dreamscape where nothing was right.

Deliberately, Julia slowed herself down. She drew a long breath. Relax. Deliberately she took down the blue-and-white-striped plates, set them down on the counter. You can’t do everything, she told herself sensibly. (Why did good advice come in platitudes?) Her parents enjoyed it here. The visit itself, that was what she was giving them. Julia liked having them here, liked offering them all this, the summer day, the house, with its faintly spicy, cedary smell. The early-morning twittering of finches in the lilacs. The sun on the tall ferns that crowded the back porch. The long pink grass of the meadow, rippling down to the cove. These

were the things her parents were here for. And herself. Her parents were here to see her. They loved her.

She drew another long, calming breath, releasing the clutch of anx-iety. She picked up the jar of mayonnaise. Twisting the top, she felt its hidden threads turn smoothly beneath her hands, unlocking the grip of metal on glass, and felt sudden pleasure at the way things worked, at the way one neat circular motion did exactly what it should. A ripple of admiration for the whole mechanized world of gears, cogs, ratchets, levers, pulleys—the physical systems that made things work. It was bril-liant, the way peoplemen, really, engineers were mostly men, despite feminismhad established such ingenious control over the world of objects.

What she wanted was to make her parents happy. It didn’t matter when they had lunch, or if the porch had been swept. She unwrapped the damp translucent packet of meat. (There was something indecent about sliced ham, about the look of it, that pink succulence, its clinging moistness.)

Julia sliced a tomato, opening its juicy scarlet core, then lapping the slices in a neat circle on a plate. She opened the jar of mustard, for her mother and herself. Her father’s sandwich would not have mustard or lettuce. The list of things her father did not like was legion: Edward viewed the world as a student project offered up to him for correction.

Edward’s presence flooded through the house, powerful, demand-ing, judgmental. At any moment he might appear in the doorway, offer-ing criticism, finding fault. The day before, while Julia was fixing dinner, Edward had arrived in the kitchen with a peremptory request for a flashlight to check beneath the sink in his bathroom.

“Water’s dripping onto the floor,” he announced. “I want to see what’s going on.”

“It’s probably only condensation on the pipes,” said Julia, her heart sinking. “Not a leak.” Surely she’d know if there were a leak? Surely this wasn’t a leak?

“I’d like to have a look at it,” he told her, as though she hadn’t spoken. “Could I have a flashlight?”

He’d stood in the doorway, waiting, while Julia stopped chopping carrots to root through the kitchen drawer. She found a flashlight, but it was dead, and there seemed to be only one new battery—a mystery, since they came in pairs.

“Sorry,” she said, irritated at herself. Her father turned without a word and went back down the hall.

It was a fact that the house was shabby, and that many aspects of it were primitive or provisional. Julia and her ex-husband Wendell—both underpaid university professors—had always had less money than her parents, and now that she was single again, Julia had even less than be-fore. Her father, who’d been a brilliant and successful neurosurgeon, had offered her no financial help during the divorce, believing that beds should be made and then lain in. He’d always seemed to take a stern relish in reminding her of her impecuniousness, pointing out the flaws in her house, her life, and the way she ran them. Now that she was poorer it seemed to Julia that he did this more often, as though being poor were merely an oversight on her part, and, if offered enough con-vincing evidence from him, she would change her mind and decide to be rich.

It was the constant threat of her father’s appearance, his criticisms and demands, that made Julia feel harried. (“Rattled,” her mother would say. “Nettled.” She used those old-fashioned expressions. No one nowa-days would know what a nettle felt like, the faint silvery irritation made by the leaves against your bare leg.)

She must relax, Julia told herself. Though why was he so rude about her house? And so casually rude, as though finding fault were his right. As though he had some special entitlement to criticism.

She drew another deep breath and laid out the slices of bread on the counter in rows, like bread solitaire. She spread the mayonnaise, smooth-ing it creamily out to the edges. The tangible world: she admired the rich surface of the mayonnaise. Opaque, succulent. How would you paint it, she wondered, and get both the glitter and opacity? Who used that heavy, creamy brushstroke? Chase? Sargent? It all looked like a painting already.

Her father was eighty-eight, her mother eighty-six. Julia loved them, and they were getting old. She didn’t think of them as actually old, but as getting old. They were nearing that country, their bodies were less present in the world, they were losing height and weight and bulk. Her parents were being diminished. She could feel them moving away, withdrawing, sweeping out like the tide toward the distant horizon.

Her father appeared now in the doorway.

How is it, she thought, that when we see someone, all the disembod-ied thoughts and emotions of that person coalesce in that figure, that presence? How does the body carry that dense weight of being?

Her father’s body held him, his character within it. If the body was lost, all his thoughts and feelings, his opinions, his irascibility, his surgical skills would be lost, swept into deep space. He would be intact then only in memory—a system so flawed and arbitrary, so unreliable, so wanting. The thought made her panicky. She looked at her father and was struck by her deep knowledge of him, by the way their lives were wrapped around each other’s, the many times she’d seen him walk into a room. How she’d longed, she supposed, for his approval.

Her father was now shockingly small, nearly her own height. In her childhood, when she’d first learned him, her father had been immense, massive-chested, towering over her like a cliff. His head was in the up-per regions of the air; she’d had to call up to his great height, her own voice tossed and tiny. Even when she’d grown up, her father had been tall. At her wedding, walking down the long aisle of the church, her father remote and distant beside her, in his dark suit, she’d felt his looming, powerful presence.

But now her father’s eyes were nearly level with hers, and his move-ments slow. Now his forehead rose to the top of his head, and fine white hair ringed his bare pate like a tonsure. His hair was too fine and weightless to lie down, and it stood up wildly, as though blown by a small personal wind. His nose had become bulbous; on his pouched yellowy cheeks were faint brown stains. His small piercing eyes were faded blue, and deep disapproving lines were etched from nose to mouth.

He wore old khaki pants, ponderous white running shoes, and a stained blue windbreaker, zipped up to his chin. He wore the jacket every day, indoors and out, as though it were the only thing he owned.

This was not the way he’d used to dress. Julia remembered him leaving for the hospital each morning wearing elegant suits, dull silk ties, soft leather shoes. Now he looked like a poor person, homeless. Which was what age did to you, it stripped you of what you’d had, of your presence in the world. The sight of him like this, shuffling, heavy-footed, in his stained windbreaker, made Julia feel helpless with tenderness.

Her father frowned at her. “Do you have an atlas?” he demanded. “I want to look up where we are.”

At once Julia forgot her tenderness, her anxiety. He had restored himself to despot. His manner—autocratic, imperious—never ceased to exasperate her.

“We do have an atlas,” Julia said. “I’ll get it for you.”

She strode into the living room, bare heels thudding confidently on the floor. Crouching by the bottom shelf, where the big books lay flat, she ran her fingers briskly and uselessly down the spines: the atlas, she could see at once, was gone.

She looked further, her gaze ranging back and forth across the shelves, lunch unfinished on the counter, her father standing ponder-ously behind her, judgment gathering in the silence. The atlas had its own place on the bottom shelf, everyone knew it. Why, right now, her father’s frown embedding itself on his forehead, was the atlas elsewhere? More evidence of her inability to run a household. Where could it possibly be, that big ungainly volume?

Julia sat back on her heels. “It’s not here, Daddy. Sorry.” She made her voice brisk and offhand.

“It’s not there?”

“Someone’s taken it and not put it back.” She stood and headed for the kitchen, head high.

“I wanted to see just where we are on the coast.” Her father shook his head. “You don’t have an atlas.”

“I do have an atlas,” Julia corrected him. “Someone’s taken it.”

There was a pause.

Edward said, “I don’t see how you can say you have an atlas if you don’t have it.”

“I do have an atlas,” Julia repeated. “I just can’t find it right now.”

Edward shook his head. “I’d call that not having one,” he said, almost to himself. “Do you have a map of the region? A local map? I want to see where we are on the coast.”

“We’re Down East,” Julia said. “That’s what you say up here. You don’t say north or south, you say Down East. Because of the schooners, and the prevailing winds.”

I know that,” Edward said. “I know about being Down East. What I want to know is where. I want to look at a map and see exactly where we are on the coast.”

“There might be a map in the car,” Julia said, though right now she doubted it, “but I’m in the middle of making lunch. Can it wait until afterward?”

What her father made her feel was incompetent: the missing atlas, the absent husband, the shabby house. Don’t say anything more, she silently commanded.

She peeled off a translucent slice of ham and laid it carefully onto the bread. Her father waited for a moment, but she did not look up. Frustrated, he turned away. She heard him heading slowly down the hall, the floor creaking beneath his steps.

At once she was ashamed.

Why did this happen? Why did she snap at her father like an adolescent? Why did he unsettle her? She was an adult. She had two wonderful sons, an ex-husband, and a possible new boyfriend; she taught at a distinguished university, she was a working artist, she showed her work regularly at a good gallery. She should be far beyond the reach of her father. But her father, though he himself was diminishing, still cast a long shadow over her life. . . .

Copyright © 2008 by Roxana Robinson. All rights reserved.

Reading Group Guide

About this Guide

The following author biography and list of questions about Cost are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach Cost.

Discussion Questions

1. Discuss the novel's title. What are the many costs—emotional and material— associated with Jack's addiction? What other circumstances lead the characters to consider their self-worth, or the "worth" of others?

2. How does Julia's relationship with her sister compare with Steven's relationship with his brother? What leads siblings to become estranged despite having been close during childhood?

3. What does the house in Maine represent to Julia at various points in her life? How does the house set the tone for the novel: picturesque, laden with memories, and in need of repair?

4. What does Cost tell us about the nature of marriage? What enabled Edward and Katharine to sustain their marriage? How does Wendell justify his affair? Is Harriet wise to avoid marriage, pursuing long-term relationships instead?

5. What are the repercussions of the parenting styles presented in the novel? Was Julia harmed by Edward'sjudgmental nature? To what extent was Jack's life a response to the way he perceived his parents?

6. Does Carpenter change Julia's family, or are they unaffected by his talk of loving interactions? What is captured in the moment when Edward mentally corrects Carpenter, asserting that addiction is not an illness (chapter twenty-seven)? Does Edward have different standards for the ill? Where does he believe self-determination ends and nature begins?

7. Steven is haunted by his parents' infidelity. Why does he blame his mother more easily than his father? How do Julia's memories of Eric shape the way she sees herself?

8. What accounts for the difference between Jack and Steven, who uses his rebellion for noble causes (such as protesting against loggers)? Would Steven have been an achiever if his brother had not been so troubled?

9. What portraits of the mind are offered in Cost? How does Edward feel about his memories of being a pioneering surgeon? What remains of Katherine despite her fading memory? What realities doeseach character create in the face of a disorienting world?

10. In chapter thirty-two, Julia tells Jack that he has to try harder. Is Julia naïve or simply afraid of what lies in store for her son? How do the other members of the family respond to both the psychological and the neurological fallout of his addiction? Why is it easier for Julia to acknowledge her parents' faltering health, while Harriet wants to believe that they are just fine?

11. What aspects of Julia's life emerge during her gallery opening? What is the significance of Harriet's presence there?

12. What were you thinking as you read the novel's closing scenes? Which characters had changed the most, along with your impressions of them?

13. How would you and your family have responded to a situation like Jack's? What do you believe can or should be done to address the needs of those with such severe addictions?

14. What themes are woven throughout this and other novels and stories by Roxana Robinson? What is unique about the approach she uses in bringing Julia's situation to life?

Customer Reviews

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Cost 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It was with some trepidation, given the subject matter 'a family torn apart by their young adult son's heroin addiction', that I picked up this book. But, encouraged by favorable critical reviews, I was enthralled starting on page one. Robinson's writing is fluid and lovely, and she makes the reader care about her main characters, including the elderly parents of the protagonist. Robinson obviously researched the effects of heroin addiction thoroughly. This is probably the best work of fiction I've read in a long time. It's breathtaking how quickly this family's center is shattered, yet Robinson wisely handles their loss of 'normalcy' in increments. This is definately a thought-provoking read. Well done!!
aliastori on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What an incredible writer. Robinson's grasp of family, contradictions and the nature of addiction was amazing. Reading Cost was like traveling on a speeding train. Like life, messy and not all neatly wrapped up. This novel will stay with me for a long time.
cobrien1250 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This novel explores the "cost" (emotional, physical, financial, spiritual)to a well-off, multigenerational family as they try to deal with Jack, a 22-year old son addicted to heroin. A sad, riveting story exploring family dynamics and family misunderstandings, full of well-drawn characters I won't soon forget.
tjsjohanna on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a moving and wrenching novel. Apart from the tragedy of drug abuse, there is the tragedy of family relationships that are fractured and broken, mostly by fear and misunderstanding. There is a glimmer of hope (or maybe just my desire for a glimmer of hope) at the end of the novel - a sign that maybe in moving through tragedy this family might be able to open themselves up to each other. Oddly, this novel made me think of Norman McLean's novella "A River Runs Through It". Though the families are different, there is that thread of helplessness as you watch a loved one go beyond your reach.
bobbieharv on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I usually have trouble with multiple points of view, especially when they shift in the middle of a page, but I ended up really liking this book. The device resulted in a 360 degree portrayal of the family relationships that surrounded the heroin addiction of the youngest son, in a very convincing way. The intervention part seemed lifted from the TV show Intervention, but I guess all interventions are ultimately the same. A very compelling read.
Rachissy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Cost by Roxana Robinson is a heartbreaking novel about a family coping with heroin abuse. Julia is a divorced college professor and artist trying to make it through the summer at her house in Maine with her elderly parents. Her mother, Katharine, is struggling with early signs of Alzheimer¿s while Edward, her father, is often judgmental and condescending. Julia¿s relationship with her parents is very strained. She¿s sick of her father¿s criticism and her mother is usually too confused to carry on a conversation with. When her oldest son, Steven, comes to visit he brings with him the news that he thinks his younger brother is doing heroin. and her mother is usually too confused to carry on a conversation with. When her oldest son comes to visit he brings with him the news that he thinks his younger brother is doing heroin.Suddenly the family needs to come together to deal with this revelation. Julia calls on her ex-husband Wendell to bring their son up to Maine so they can confront him as a family. She also asks her estranged sister to come help as the family stages an intervention with the help of a professional who runs a rehab facility.The book is narrated in multiple POV¿s and we get a glimpse into each family member¿s mind which really helps weave the story together. Julia is concerned and struggling to come to terms with the impact of her son Jack¿s addiction. She tries so hard to will the problem away, to make it into anything but what it is. Then when she comes to terms with it, she¿s haunted by the fact that there is very little she herself can do to help her son. As a mother myself I could feel her torment. My children are still little and I still have an element of control. I can make them go to school, clean their room, eat their veggies and I can help them correct their mistakes. I hate to think of the day when I become a bystander in their lives, unable to help them or make them choose the right path.Watching her mother struggle with the loss of her memory is heartbreaking and I felt for the brother¿s conflict, scared for his brother but feeling guilty for betraying his secret. The worst though was the look into Jack¿s mind as he copes with heroin addiction and withdrawal. You could see the effect of the drug through his inner monologue as he wonders in a fit of withdrawal why everyone doesn¿t keep a rock in their glove compartment to smash windows with. The way he¿s able to justify all his actions through the drug is frightening, his mind was definitely not a pleasant place to be.Roxana Robinson does a beautiful job in detailing the downward spiral of addiction and the way it affects the entire family. Julia¿s family, once strained and distant, actually find itself stronger through working together to save Jack. It¿s a good read but if you have any experience with addiction, some parts may hit very close to home. Proceed with tissues.
whitreidtan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Julia is an artist. She is divorced and her children are grown. The summer that the book opens finds her at the shabby Maine farmhouse on the coast that has been such a touchstone for her ever since she and her ex-husband found it many years before. Her parents, older and failing in small or large ways, are with her and she is struggling to manage her relationship with them when her oldest son grudgingly concedes that he thinks her younger son is quite probably addicted to heroin. As she tries to cope with the despair and denial she is feeling, she must try to also reach her most mercurial child, Jack, before he is so lost to her that he cannot be pulled back. As much as the focus in this novel is on Julia's efforts to save Jack, she must also face truths about herself and who she is as her life spins out of control, slave to her child's addiction.Robinson uses multiple narrators in an effort to round the story out and to show the effects of addiction on a family as a whole but I enjoyed reading certain characters more than others so the constantly shifting narrator caused me some irritation--serious irritation at times. Jack's narration in particular, while perhaps authentic, was difficult and swampy to read. She's probably drawn precise and real characters in the throes of this situation but I couldn't find much sympathy in me for any of them. Older son Ben wants to absent himself from the whole situation, angry he's been forced to "out" his brother. Ex-husband Wendell doesn't really want to be bothered or involved. Julia herself prefers to live in denial, searching for a magic bullet. Their quiet desperation and ineffective choices of coping skills are desperate but ultimately uninteresting. Throughout, the narrative felt very slow and heavy going, probably because of the heavy subject matter and the inevitable train-wreck. Robinson really captured the "slowing down of time" that seems to be a mark of heroin addiction but that very drawn-out feeling of being underwater is part of what made this such a difficult read to stay engaged with for me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Liked writing but not story line
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This is the most true to life book of how a family really feels as the horror of addiction unfolds. It is riveting for those of us who have been there, and an eye-opener for those who haven't.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Robinson is able to write with such detail so that the reader feels as if he is part of the story.Just when the snow starts to settle, the characters' lives are shaken, leading the the reader to a very satisfying, but sad ending.