'Cost' By Roxana Robinson
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A sense of decline -- that's the first thing you feel in Roxana Robinson's fourth novel. There's an unrelenting, inevitable sense of things marching downhill: elderly parents, old houses, relationships......
When we meet Julia Lambert, a painter and art professor from the city, she's anxiously making lunch in the summer home she once shared with her ex-husband. Julia's parents, now in their 80s, are there.
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Her two sons, in their early 20s, are on their way. The old farmhouse off the coast of Maine is rotting from the inside out.
Knowing the upkeep on the place is beyond her, Julia grows resentful of "this continual mindless urge on the part of everything in the material world to return to an earlier, more primitive form: wood to soil, metal to rust, plaster to dust." .....
The metaphor, of course, extends beyond the old house. Julia observes her parents, "beginning to dissolve into radiant dusk."
But what starts out as the fairly familiar story of a single woman sandwiched between declining parents and out-of-college, out-of-work children, "Cost" takes a turn about 90 pages in.
Suddenly we're in the midst of a mother's worst nightmare -- her youngest son, Jack, is a heroin addict......
Though not one to wear blinders, Julia inevitably clings to denial for as long as she can when confronted with this horror. But when the boy's inner arms are finally exposed, revealing bloody, oozing tracks, her knees buckle. She heartbreakingly recalls her baby's once perfect skin:
"This was the silky, elastic skin of her child, that miraculous inner skin, so nacreous and fragile, which Julia has stroked and smoothed so many times."
With its New England setting, a family gathering, an addiction crisis, it might suggest some ponderous Eugene O'Neill play, but Robinson's novel actually feels more like a contemporary movie. In one nail-biting scene, the brothers fight in a small rowboat at night without lights, lifejackets, or paddles, and begin drifting out to sea.
Why bother with such a sad story? One reason is Robinson's beautiful, haunting style. Though primarily told from a mother's point of view, she allows us inside all of the characters' heads and hearts, where much is revealed.
The Lambert family is a complex, conflicted bunch, flawed, yet sympathetic human beings who will get under your skin like a junkie's needle.
First Published August 3, 2008 12:00 am