four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
36-Sept-Oct-2008
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
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A-CostThe author of three acclaimed novels, three short story collections, and a biography of Georgia O’Keefe, Roxana Robinson teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York City.

The Story: Julia Lambert, an art professor, is looking forward to spending time at her seaside house in Maine with her elderly parents—her father, an authoritarian neurosurgeon, and her mother, who is slowly losing her memory. When Julia’s oldest son visits and reveals that the other son, Jack (perhaps a product of Julia’s only extramarital affair), has descended into heroin addiction, the family—now joined by Julia’s ex-husband and sister—intervenes. Counseling and treatment ensue as shock, denial, guilt, regret, hope, hostility, and despair engulf the family. Narrated in third-person accounts that reveal each member’s deepest anxieties, Jack’s desperate plight exposes the emotional bonds that can rend, unite, or destroy not only an individual but an entire family.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 420 pages. $25. ISBN: 0374271879

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Every aspect of this ordeal seems horrifyingly authentic, sharp enough to pierce any smug confidence you might harbor that addiction only happens to other people, the dissipated children of bad parents. … Robinson has perfected a kind of rotating point of view that allows her to move gracefully, seamlessly from character to character so that we’re privy to each person’s thoughts, one after another." Ron Charles

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"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. … 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." Jessica Treadway

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Robinson achieves a truly Shakespearean breadth of vision in this final scene, acknowledging that suffering can sharpen our understanding without minimizing the lasting damage it inflicts. Bleak though it undeniably is, Cost is also a warmly human and deeply satisfying book, marking a new level of ambition and achievement for this talented author." Wendy Smith

Hartford Courant 4 of 5 Stars
"A family crisis, pitched against the serene yet perilous New England landscape, Cost is wonderfully reminiscent of On Golden Pond. … Certain shifts of as many as three perspectives on a single page can be jarring, but mostly the technique works brilliantly to reveal the startlingly different accounts of what is happening inside the same small house." Jenny Minton

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"There is urgency in the narrative; you keep hoping for a rescue and you care about these complex people even when you want to shake them for behaving badly. … But what makes Ms. Robinson much more than a very good reporter is her searching compassion for these flawed people." Frances Taliaferro

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Cost is unusual for being as plot-driven as it is character-driven, and the assured manner in which Robinson builds toward the inevitable train wreck is matched by her acuity in bringing us inside the characters’ minds. … This technique [of characters posing rhetorical questions and switching into italics] can be tedious; more problematic is its homogeneity: these different individuals express themselves in distinctly similar ways." Leah Hager Cohen

Cleveland Plain Dealer 2.5 of 5 Stars
"A leaner, better focused book would have packed more power. … Refusing to make the addict Jack likable, the story juxtaposes his family’s loving memories of him against the grisly, suicidal reality of him now." Tricia Springstubb

Critical Summary

Ambitious and wholly mesmerizing, Cost explores all angles of a family’s raw, messy tragedy. With profound analysis into each member’s different fears, anxieties, and relationships with each other, Robinson probes deeply into their souls and exposes heroin addiction’s devastating effects. Reviewers agreed that while the plot is strong and authentic, the author’s exceptionally well-drawn characters—particularly Julia, her gentle mother, and the rehab counselor—carry the novel. The only point of contention seemed to be the omniscient narration. While most critics praised this device, others felt the changes in perspective were too abrupt and the characters’ voices too repetitive. Still, this is a minor flaw; Cost is a sensitive, compassionate, and beautifully written portrayal of a dysfunctional family.