October Book Club: COST by Roxana Robinson

Cost The October EDIWTB book club selection was Cost, by Roxana Robinson. It's an intense novel about a family – mom Julia Lambert, her ex-husband Wendell, and their two grown sons Jack and Steven. Jack, the younger son, is addicted to heroin, and the book takes place mostly over four days when the family learns of the addiction and tries to figure out how to deal with it, including staging an intervention and hiring an addiction counselor.

I found Cost to be an engaging read, albeit difficult at times.The subject matter is terrifying. As a parent, what do you do when your child is under the influence of a ravaging, relentless chemical that renders him completely unfamiliar? To what lengths will you go to bring him back? Robinson explores, in great detail, what each member of Jack's family goes through to come to terms with his situation. She gives the greatest attention to Julia, but her narration weaves in and out of several other characters' heads, ultimately painting a very detailed, thorough picture of this family's tragedy.

This book is so incredibly detailed that you can almost go on autopilot as a reader. Robinson leaves nothing vague or unexplored in Cost. This isn't meant as criticism, at all – it's just a particular style of writing, and one that I do enjoy. The fact that time was so compressed in this book, combined with the carefully detailed storytelling, made reading it almost claustrophobic at times. I have to believe this was intentional, for that's what the characters must have felt as things passed from bad to worse.

Here is a great passage that conveys the intensity of Julia's feelings during Jack's addiction:

Someday this would all be over. In twenty years, ten, it would be over; somehow it would be resolved, but how? There were moments when she thought she could not bear it any longer, she could not bear it, but she could not stop it. Jack and heroin made that relentless bass line, that terrible thudding constant in her consciousness. There was nothing else so strong, nothing she could do to stop it. Her cell phone was always on, and each time it rang, her heart lurched with dread.

I found my heart lurching with dread, a bit, too, as I read Cost.

The Q&A at the end of the paperback version of Cost reveals that Robinson did meticulous research into the world of heroin addiction, talking to addicts, families, doctors, counselors, and policemen before she wrote the book. Her research paid off – her book is an impressive exploration of a world with which many people may be unfamiliar. It is also a powerful examination of family dynamics (many of which have nothing to do with addiction), told from many perspectives.

I highly recommend Cost, and am so glad that I read it. I know that it will stay with me for a long time.

I'd love to hear from the other participants in the Cost book club. Please share your thoughts about the book. And if you have questions you'd like Roxanna Robinson to answer, leave them in your comment or email them to me at gweiswasser@gmail.com.

13 Comments

  • TLB
    October 12, 2009 - 7:24 am | Permalink

    I found this book absorbing and I think I will be haunted by its
    intensity for months to come. I was impressed by how quickly Robinson’s writing took hold of me – plunging the reader immediately into Julia’s psyche and the important dynamic between her and her parents. The characters were well-drawn, remarkably so and I reacted as as if I actually knew these people.For example, I felt annoyed by Julia’s intermittent hesitation and denial; appreciative of Wendell’s practical approach; and exasperated by Katharine and Edward. I do wish there had been more detail about Jack before his addiction. I would have been interested to read his perspective before he was ravaged by heroin.
    I enjoyed her style of writing – while the subject matter is tragic,
    there was nothing overly dramatic, no hysterics. Also, the narrative flowed easily between the past and the present, something many authors attempt without as much success.
    For me one of the most memorable parts of the book was the scene where the boys take out the boat in the cold night into the ocean. Again, I almost felt as if I were on that porch, filled with fear and disbelief. Everything about that scene was so vivid – the darkness, the salt in the air, the wet, the cold, the glimpses of movement in the water; it was almost like a painting.
    I found her style of writing a bit grating at times. Am I the only one who felt that the plot moved glacially, as we were given a tour of the interior lives of Julia, Kathy and Edward? Some of these not-quite-stream-of-consciousness segments were redundant – especially Edward’s. And I was not really convinced that opening a jar or buckling a seatbelt could produce conscious thoughts of gratitude toward the mostly male engineers of the world. I agree, Gayle, that reading the detail in the book made it almost “claustrophobic.”
    While I found most of the plot realistic I had a hard time believing some of Jack’s hospital scene. I can’t imagine that it would be so easy to find a car with a key in it; and whatever happened to his infection after he left the hospital?
    Still, as a whole, I enjoyed the book, even with its tragic ending. In fact, I thought the very end was brilliant – we see Katharine
    spreading her grandson’s ashes and it is clear that she has no idea what she is doing, what “this pale gritty powder” is. And as we realize that she has been spared the pain of that tragedy, we are reminded that memory can be the source of our greatest torment.
    Thanks, Gayle, for a great recommendation!

  • Sarah
    October 12, 2009 - 9:52 am | Permalink

    Gayle — Thank you for choosing “Cost” as your book club selection. Due to the disturbing nature of the subject material, I don’t think I would have chosen to read it on my own, and I’m very glad I did read it. If the book had been written by a lesser writer, I don’t think I would have stuck with it. But Robinson wrote so persuasively, so carefully, that I was drawn in. I also think that a lesser writer would have merely written a sensationalized account of heroin addiction. Robinson successfully wrote a much more layered novel, with an unsatisfying plot, which made it realistic. I found the book quite addictive to read, which I imagine might have been part of Robinson’s point. I was drawn in, almost like “Cost” was a drug. I found the tragic end to be among the novel’s strongest attributes. The story would not have been the same story had it concluded neatly and happily. I found the following quotation by Wendell to sum up the book profoundly. He says to Julia , as they are searching for Jack in Brooklyn toward the end of the book: “It’s like an exercise in existential torture: our punishment is to sit for eternity and watch our son destroy himself.”
    A few criticisms: While I think Robinson did an excellent job with the novel in an overall/holistic sense, I think some of the details were either lacking or not very well thought out. For example: it becomes clear at some point that Julia and Harriet have a brother, Ted, who lives in Oregon. But Robinson refers to him without explaining him. In a few neat sentences, she could have fleshed that out, and instead, the reader is left feeling like she is at a party and not being properly introduced to guests. I also thought that it was unrealistic that Julia begins to truly neglect Steven. Toward the end of the book, she tells Wendell that she just can’t think about him, that Jack occupies all of her mental space. As a mother, I find this implausible. While Jack might take up a vast majority of his mother’s mental energy, no parent stops thinking about/being concerned for another child.
    “Cost” made me think a lot about parenting. I found both Julia and Wendell to be deeply lacking in parenting skills. While I certainly don’t blame them for Jack’s heroin addiction, clearly they turned a blind eye to his irresponsible behavior throughout his life, and in the end, that is what cost him his life. Having the attitude, “Oh, it’s just pot,” which dominated Jack’s life previously, of thinking that his general inability to live in the real world was just part of his personality ultimately cost him his life.

  • October 12, 2009 - 10:16 am | Permalink

    Cost took a little while for me to get into, but as the plot moved forward I found myself immersed in the story. There were points where I did not enjoy Roxanna’s style of over-description, but overall it was an interesting insight into each character.
    Jack’s storyline was terrifying as he spiraled downward in his addiction, and at each step of the way you really understood the mind of an addict and his reaction to every positive step his family took, and how his mind twisted everything towards his addiction needs.
    I was actually really interested in the relationship between Katharine and Edward, and his (late) realization of his love for her and concern that there wasn’t enough time left.
    Memory was certainly a big factor in this book — each character remembered different aspects of their past and each relationship a bit differently. I do wish there had actually been a few less characters, so that I could get even deeper into each one’s psyche.
    It would have been interesting to read more about Jack’s journey to addiction, how he really got started and what his life was like during the peak. We really see him towards the end, and I think the beginning would have been important (although it’s hinted at).
    I found the boat scene really good, and enjoyed the idea that the brothers were lost and forced to confront each other alone. This was really the only time that Stephen got to talk to Jack about how he felt, and the rest of the book he kind of closed up in the background and disengaged.
    Overall, I enjoyed the book and thought it was a great way to meld family relationships, secrets and the power of drug addiction and even forgiveness to some extent.

  • Kelly C
    October 12, 2009 - 11:11 am | Permalink

    I was totally drawn in by this book. I loved the multiple-character perspective and the advantage it provided of being able to see the same events through different eyes. It is so difficult to do that in real life! I have a son about Jack’s age, so of course my mind went right there. What would I do if I were in Julia’s shoes? How would I react? Would I take these same steps? Would I be strong or would I crumple up and feel hopeless? I learned so much from this book, not just about heroin addiction but about how people react to tragedy and how they treat each other in the midst of it. I feel as if it prepared me a little bit and gave me wider insight into people, something I always look for in a novel. I also liked the fact that it seemed so truthful and direct about family relationships. I love my family, but after big multi-generational holiday gatherings, I always have a killer headache! I think it’s because of all those undercurrents of emotions that run through families. I reread the last chapter a couple of times, and I believe it is one of the best ending chapters I’ve ever read. Heartbreaking and just a little bit hopeful, and summed things up very well. Great book!

  • Stephanie C.
    October 12, 2009 - 11:28 am | Permalink

    I’ll be totally honest here. I could not finish this book – I put it down around page 35 and never looked at it again. And I NEVER quit books in the middle. The story, as far as I had read, was not the problem. The book was just so WORDY that I couldn’t get past it. It felt like there were so many adjectives added in to make it longer or something. It was just too much for me.
    I really had been looking forward to the story too, so its a shame.

  • Kori
    October 12, 2009 - 11:58 am | Permalink

    This book is haunting. I went into the book, thinking the Lamberts were a bit pretentious, but I couldn’t help but be drawn into their world that was quickly spiraling downwards.
    Like Julia was waiting for her phone to ring with bad news, I found myself quickly turning the pages to find out what Jack’s fate was. Of course in the back of my head, I knew most likely what would happen to him, but it was heartbreaking to read about his death. Which that in itself was strange for me, because I don’t think I really knew Jack as anything but a heroin addict, but still I cared for him.
    I found myself very angry at Wendell and Julia at times, particularly for their very relaxed ways of parenting with Jack. They let things go by with him, such as weed, and flunking school, which I believe had something to do with him turning to drugs. The scene where Julia sees Jack smoking pot with his arms wide open, in the rain, through the bus window disturbed me. I know that if it was my mother, she would’ve stopped the bus, grabbed me by the scruff of my neck in front of all my friends and would’ve scared me into tomorrow if I even dared so much as to think about smoking weed again. However, Julia recognizes that and even says it is her fault, she was very relaxed with Jack because she felt she already did it once with Steven. I also feel like she’s making the same mistake with Steven, when she isolates him and doesn’t pay any attention to him while going through the ordeal with Jack.
    I loved Katharine’s character, simply because she added smiles and a calm, peaceful, strength despite her Alzheimer’s.
    I think this is an important book to read, and I’m glad I’ve read it.

  • October 12, 2009 - 12:29 pm | Permalink

    This book does sound terrifying. I cannot imagine dealing with something like that.

  • October 12, 2009 - 5:57 pm | Permalink

    this book was just the type of thing i like to read. i really enjoyed hearing the story from the different points of view of the characters involved. i loved robinson’s writing! i was really interested in the grandparent’s characters and would liked to have read more about them. overall i thought it was a great novel about the struggles and conflicts of family that i am sure everyone could relate to in some way. loved it!

  • October 12, 2009 - 7:56 pm | Permalink

    Although I found the first chapter hard to get through (I felt like she had ADD – always getting side tracked thinking about something), I did realize it was character developement. I’m glad I didn’t close the book. The second chapter was a different character and I LOVE multiple-character perspective. From the 2nd chapter I couldn’t put the book down. And, all of a sudden things were moving too fast! Reading the situation from so many different angles really made the book. I lovely book club selection – thanks!!

  • TLB
    October 15, 2009 - 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Sarah – I agree with you on several points: the strong (but sad) ending, and the implausibility of Julia neglecting Steven. I too found myself critiquing Wendell and Julia’s parenting but tried to quash that impulse. I felt if I got into that mindset I might just dismiss the whole book as the tale of bad parents and bad kids and miss the nuances of the story.

  • Darby Lohrding
    October 15, 2009 - 10:50 pm | Permalink

    This book took my breath away and made my heart skip/stop several times. It reminds me (the intensity) of the bok Oprah sponsered and then later found out the author was a fraud…in fact I haven’t read a book that scared the begeebee’s out of me since then….until this book.
    Great Pick Girlfriend!!!
    Thanks for including me!!
    Darby
    darbyscloset at yahoo dot com

  • Elise
    October 17, 2009 - 11:30 pm | Permalink

    I loved this book. Thank you so much, Gayle, for sponsoring this. I’ve enjoyed reading the comments, too. I agree with other posters that I was furious with the parents–their lack of parenting skills just made me want to strangle them. But the story was so real, so haunting. I was worried sick over Jack, and while the ending wasn’t really a surprise, I kept hoping for a better outcome.
    I liked the style and writing. The story moved along at a fast pace, yet without over dramatization. I could really feel the mother’s heartbreak.
    This is a book I will absolutely recommend and pass my copy around.

  • October 19, 2009 - 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Finally made it through this one and I’m glad I stuck with it even though I thought it easily could have been 100 pages shorter. I really couldn’t tell where the book was going at first, although I thought the writing was wonderful. “Julia wanted her parents here-she loved them-their presence altered her gravity. She had to struggle to stay upright.” I totally felt that. But then the story really seemed to drag as Robinson filled in the backgrounds. When Robinson got to the meat of the story, then it really pulled me along. Clearly she knows what she’s talking about. I think it’s a book that would be great for all parents to read, especially those that think “it’s only pot.”

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