I enjoyed this book a great deal more than I thought I would. Its cover is a little bit Jodie Picoult-ish, a woman leaning against a door, the sun setting in the distance. So I have put it off for at least a month before opening it and now I’m glad I did get round to reading it.
I haven’t read any other novels by Roxana Robinson, but I found this one to be sensitively written about a family and the tragedy that befalls it. Julia is an art lecturer at Columbia University, she has two adult sons and is divorced, although is on good speaking terms with her ex-husband. We meet her at her holiday house in Maine (starting to decay after her divorce), with her parents visiting her in the summer. Like real life, she is glad to have her parents with her, but they are irritating her; there undercurrents run throughout each conversation and tension hangs in the air. Her father is a bolshy, egotistic retired neurosurgeon and her mother is slowly losing her mind to Alzheimer’s.
Julia dreads her father’s comments and veiled criticisms; Robinson says, “What her father made her feel was incompetent: the missing atlas, the absent husband, the shabby house.” In contrast, her mother is unfailingly cheerful and supportive of her. Julia’s relationship with her sister is strained – having been best friends when young, they now barely see each other any more.
Julia’s elder son, Steven, comes to Maine to visit and, on his mother’s prompting, finally tells her that he thinks Jack, the younger brother, is using heroin. From the way Julia speaks, Jack is her favourite son; his father is possibly her lover’s, although she is never sure. She does not want to face the possibility, but Steven has visited Jack in New York and has seen the filth he lives in, the type of people he mixes with, and the needle marks on his arm.
The family is forced together by Jack’s addiction, as they must have a group meeting with Jack, to persuade him to go into rehab. Each person is made to confront his or her own anxieties and strained relationships within the family and is made to work together with the others to deal with Jack’s addiction. Jack’s story is terrifying, from drug dens to prison to rehab to escape, I cannot imagine how horrendous it must be to be a mother coping with that.
I liked Robinson’s narrative device in that she uses the omniscient narrator, so we get to know all the characters’ minds and their take on the situation (except her ex-husband). She handles this extremely well, and even sometimes changes the point of view within a page, without any confusion (well, to me at least). In this way, I found that I was able to get to know each character and have more sympathy with each – for example, with Julia’s father, who turns out to be tortured by surgeries he had done in the past.
The one thing I didn’t like about her characterisation is that each of her characters does a lot of musing and self-questioning, sometimes too much and sometimes repetitively. It was a bit boring at times.
Apparently Robinson is known for writing books about WASP families (white Anglo-Saxon protestant), and I can see why from reading this book. Perhaps that is why I could relate to it, as I’m sure I would fall into the WASP category. However, I believe that the anxieties and tensions that existed within Julia’s family could exist in any family on the earth and, as such, it is a universal story.
It is a sad book, but a story that has happened to many families in real life. Robinson has portrayed the tragedy beautifully and has written in detail about the effects of heroin use and withdrawal. I just hope she didn’t write it from experience.
For anyone who likes an intelligent, sensitive read about families and relationships, I would whole heartedly recommend Cost.