Cost A Novel

Roxana Robinson




Trade Paperback

448 Pages



Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy

Longlisted for the International IMPAC Literary Award
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
Named a 'Good Read' by the National Book Critics Circle
A Washington Post Top Five Book of the Year
A Wall Street Journal Best Book of the Year
A Seattle Times Best Book of the Year
A Library Journal Best Book of the Year

In Cost, Roxana Robinson tackles addiction and explores its effects on the bonds of family with her hallmark subtlety and precision in evoking the emotional interiors of her characters. The result is a work in which the reader's compassion for every character remains unflagging to the end.

When Julia Lambert, an art professor, settles into her idyllic Maine house for the summer, she plans to spend the time tending her fragile relationships with her father, a repressive neurosurgeon, and her gentle mother, who is descending into Alzheimer's. But a shattering revelation intrudes: Julia's son Jack has spiraled into heroin addiction.

In an attempt to save him, Julia marshals help from her looseknit clan: elderly parents; remarried ex-husband; removed sister; and combative eldest son. Ultimately, heroin courses through the characters' lives with an impersonal and devastating energy, sweeping the family into a world in which deceit, crime, and fear are part of daily life.


Praise for Cost

"Robinson's fourth novel is an engrossing tale of a patrician family's unraveling during a summer in Maine. Julia Lambert is a divorced artist, trying to entertain her oppressive, former neurosurgeon father (he points out everything that's wrong with his daughter's run-down cabin) and her self-effacing mother, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer's. Julia's elder son suspects that his younger brother, Jack, is a heroin addict, and when this turns out to be true an intervention is staged. The family's ugly, dysfunctional history pours out in the process, in sharp contrast with the halcyon setting. Robinson moves nimbly among the numerous characters' mind-sets, and although Julia's meditations on 'the long tradition of luminist painting' can drag, Jack's story maintains its tension until the final, affecting pages."—The New Yorker

"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 . . . [Julia] gains the strength not only to bear a grievous separation from her younger son but, more significant, to question the separations she has imposed on the most intimate relationships in her life. Why, she wonders, has she done this? . . . Robinson has already shown us why, having exhumed the many reasons in the preceding pages. But the question remains worth asking, not only by Julia but by any of these characters—by anyone, period, still struggling to connect. With the novel's final words, which made me catch my breath, Robinson suggests the enormous stakes involved in pursuing the answer."—The New York Times Book Review

"Scarily good . . . I've never read such a spot-on description of the mingled feelings of affection and frustration one feels for one's parents as Robinson spins out here with sometimes comic effect . . . One of our best writers."—The Washington Post

"Cost is both lyrical and unsentimental, richly honest and humane—summer reading of uncommon stature."—The Wall Street Journal

"Set mostly in a Maine summerhouse more charming than functional, this is a strikingly realistic, psychologically astute study of family relations in modern America's educated class. As in a family itself, competing perceptions of events past and present crowd the pages. Self-involved preoccupations overwhelm many touching moments of understanding; defensive postures become hurtful habits nearly impossible to shift. But when compared with the single-minded obsession of the younger son, whose heroin addiction organizes the plot, the degree to which the rest of the characters value and care for one another, despite their normal measure of self-interest, is arresting. Robinson gracefully launches and bolsters her psychological insights with concrete details of her settings. As always, she writes with impressive polish at both the sentence and structural levels."—The Atlantic Monthly

"Cost is such an apt title for the latest book of novelist and Mount Desert summer resident Roxana Robinson. In the novel, much of which is set in Maine, the cost to Julia Lambert, the protagonist, and to her immediate and extended family of her son Jack's heroin addiction cannot be quantified, nor can the cost of the alienation between Julia and her aging parents. In reading this novel—even when some of the details made me uncomfortable—I cannot ignore how Robinson's characters exemplify people I know and how perceptively she depicts them. As the plot unfolds, the reader slowly realizes not only that the costs are searing and exist on so many levels—psychological, emotional, financial, physiological—but also that various characters in their interior monologues frequently allude to 'risk.' And taking risks incurs costs. Robinson's mastery of the interior monologue gives the narrative depth and intimacy. One identifies with the character and intuits what may occur. While Jack's heroin addiction is not immediately known, the reminiscences of his parents, brother and grandparents' throughout the novel reveal that Jack has always courted trouble. ‘Jack always went too far. His exploits were too perilous, the risks always too great,' recalls Steven, his older brother. But the costs in the novel extend beyond the cost of heroin addiction and alienation. There are the emotional costs of losing a beloved son, and there are the physical, mental and emotional costs of aging. Robinson effectively portrays these costs, particularly in her characterization of Julia and Katharine, Julia's 86-year-old mother who is in the early stages of Alzheimer's . . . In a recent interview, Robinson said that a novelist must have compassion for her characters, and in Cost, which was a Spring 2008 ‘Recommended Reads' by the National Book Critics Circle, that compassion is in evidence everywhere."—Anne Kozak, Mount Desert Islander

"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 . . . 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."—Carol O'Sullivan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"Many of the casualties of addiction are hidden from view. Roxanna Robinson's new novel explores the collateral damage—specifically, its impact on families—with a deeply felt compassion, as she tells the story of a mother wrestling with the inner demons that haunt her youngest son . . . Robinson, author of Sweetwater, other well-received novels and a short story collection, delineates the tension in the worlds of her conflicted characters in absorbing, descriptive scenes. She reveals all the recriminations, self-blame and guilt of addiction's progress as the family members slowly realize how difficult it is to save another. In the end, it is Robinson's compassion for each of her characters that remains. Sometimes, compassion is the only offering possible."—Steve Dyke, The Star-Ledger (Newark)

"Robinson paints a chilling portrait of addiction, depicting heroin junkies in particular as ruthless in pursuit of their highs and rehab as hardly more than a crapshoot. There's little solace here, except in the accumulation of wisdom and softening of old resentments at the book's appealing, astutely drawn characters come together. We can't always save each other, but there's a kind of redemption in the fight."—People

"An emotionally incisive story about change—the permeable bonds between family members and an individual's fluctuating sense of self. The book gets at these themes by dwelling on its characters' shifting roles, from child to parent, from friend to lover, from nurtured to nurturer and back again . . . Robinson avoids cliché with her twisted characters and detailed, sometimes scathing observations . . . And while her focus is on the family, she captures what drives them apart just as well as what holds them together. The language is strong—occasionally lyrical but always tight—and Robinson's penchant for detail eventually pushes this messy family drama to a succinct point: Relationships define who we are, whether we like it or not."—Chelsea Bauch, Time Out New York

"Loss, grief and regret are the central subjects of Roxana Robinson's harrowing new novel, which applies the writer's trademark gifts as an intelligent, sensitive analyst of family life to the darkest subject matter she has tackled to date . . . 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."—Chicago Tribune

"Roxana Robinson creates a psychologically mesmerizing family dynamic in the vortex of one son's drug addiction . . . Cost alternates close-up third-person points-of-view with ease and fluidity. 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."—Hartford Courant

"Artfully portrays a family transformed by the far-reaching consequences of a son's heroin addiction."—Vanity Fair

"Each of the characters is so perfectly realized, each is made known to us with such heart and intelligence. This is a very big book: the territory of family is more fragile and dangerous than any geography we know, and Roxana Robinson has made life of that. I loved, admired, and was frankly undone by every minute of it."—Susan Richards Shreve, author of A Student of Living Things

"Roxana Robinson is surely one of the most graceful stylists and psychologically perceptive writers working. Cost approaches the subject of drugs' impact from an original and very significant angle. This book shows further the extent of Robinson's insights into the whirl, the generational ironies at work, and the desperate indulgences to which we turn in our confusion. Cost is an important, timely book that furthers insight into our preset fortunes and dilemmas."—Robert Stone, author of Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties

"Cost is a gritty portrait of the havoc wreaked upon a family by one member's drug addiction. Roxana Robinson's vivid, sensuous prose moves effortlessly among relationships and points of view, evoking a brutal war between familial love—in its infinite power and mystery—and the mechanical devastations of pathology."—Jennifer Egan, author of The Keep

"With passion, feeling and a keen eye for detail, Roxana Robinson brings chillingly to life a family and a family tragedy, showing us how—like a luminous yet ominous landscape—their tangible visible world can coincide with the invisible tumultuous world of their emotions."—Lily Tuck, author of The News from Paraguay

"The novel Cost is a very gripping and superbly written story about the destructive effects of heroin addiction on the brain, mind, and soul of Jack Lambert and on his family. In addition to accurately describing 'an intervention,' Roxanna Robinson also provides superb information about the neurochemistry and neuroanatomy of addiction. She describes the concomitant cognitive, psychosocial, interpersonal, and psychodynamic distortions that both predispose to and are caused by the addiction. Ms. Robinson also beautifully describes the common regressions that can and often emerge at family gatherings, in which adults act more childlike than is ordinarily the case. The novel is in prose, but it is really a poem conveying the textures, tastes, sounds, colors, assumptions, lusts, banalities, hypocrisies, vanities, regrets, joys, iciness, warmth, smoothness, and stickiness of living, in a style ranging from luxuriant to spartan. When one first picks up this wonderful book, one is greeted on the book by a beautiful pastoral painting of a cottage on a hill. The painting has been shredded into four vertical strips that visually foretell the torn, misaligned, and yet fundamentally and curiously coherent quality of the Lambert family . . . In summary, I highly recommend Cost for anyone wanting to better understand the vicissitudes of our human condition and the tragedies of heroin addiction. Importantly, the novel is also about the centrality of memories and how each interaction either lovingly or cruelly creates a new memory and thus a new present and future."—Baer Ackerman, Psychiatric Services

"Julia, a divorced artist and art professor in Manhattan, has two grown sons: responsible Steven, who has been working as a conservation activist in Seattle but is returning east to attend law school, and his younger brother Jack, an erstwhile musician who has always been the family risk-taker and troublemaker. The novel opens on the glum scene of Julia attempting to entertain her difficult, aging parents at her Maine vacation house. Already tense from trying to be a dutiful daughter despite her resentment toward her rigid father Edward and her impatience with her placid mother Katharine, who is actually losing her memory, Julia falls to pieces when Steven arrives and admits his suspicion that Jack has become a heroin addict. She immediately calls her ex-husband Wendell who goes to Jack's squalid apartment and drags him to Maine for a family intervention including distraught Edward and clueless Katharine. Before any real conversation can take place, Jack goes into withdrawal. A desperate Wendell calls 911, and Jack is hospitalized. The family now rally around professional interventionist Ralph Carpenter . . . At first Julia remains in partial denial, unable to grasp how grave Jack's condition is, but the 'hypnotic and dreadful' Ralph gives Julia and readers a full course in the horrors and hopelessness of heroin addiction . . . A fictional case study."—Kirkus Reviews

"The mildly strained Lambert family is in terrible trouble. New York art professor Julia is spending the summer in her ramshackle Maine home with her very elderly parents. Julia's older son, Steven, arrives for a visit and shatters the surface serenity with his suspicion that his younger brother, Jack, is a heroin addict spiraling out of control. When Steve's worst fears are confirmed, Julia's ex-husband, Wendell, brings Jack to Maine for an intervention, conducted by Ralph Carpenter, a tough ex-addict who runs a Florida recovery program. Robinson's fourth novel spares her fictional family nothing in this tale of hell. Each of the Lamberts is forced to look down the wrong end of the heroin needle, one horrific, sordid, heartbreaking detail after another. With exquisitely raw honesty, Robinson offers no hope for this nearly always-deadly addiction. As Jack's descent picks up speed toward the end, the Lamberts are drowning in the kind of intolerable grief borne of having to mourn the loss of a loved one before the heart stops beating."—Beth E. Andersen, Library Journal

Reviews from Goodreads



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...

Read the full excerpt


  • Roxana Robinson

  • Roxana Robinson is the author of four novels and three short-story collections, as well as a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe. Four of these were named Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper's Magazine, The New York Times, Best American Short Stories, and Vogue, among other publications. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. She teaches at the New School in New York.

  • Roxana Robinson Marion Ettlinger


    Roxana Robinson

    Macmillan Speakers Bureau

    represents thought-provoking authors and experts. We can find a speaker uniquely positioned for your audience and budget.

    More info




Download PDF



Go to website


Sign Up


Reading Group Guide