Cost by Roxana Robinson

Back in August, Lauren sent me Roxana Robinson’s Cost with a note saying that she couldn’t resist sending me a book about a professor.

That interested me. Cost had been getting a lot of press for being (or not sufficiently being) a book about addiction. Addiction isn’t a big theme of interest for me. But I am enough of a narcissist to enjoy the occasional novel about a professor. And, having returned from our annual sojourn on the St. Lawrence River (remote and cheaper than Maine), I was intrigued by the story of a college professor spending her sabbatical at a tumbledown Maine house that she can ill afford. It seemed a nice way to extend the summer, to ease the ache of leaving the River behind.

I absolutely gobbled this book. I cannot explain why it’s taken four months for me to blog about it. Clearly, I’m not cut out for a career in publicity or reviewing. I’m poky. Still I remember getting up at 5:00 one morning and hiding in the bathroom, racing through the book’s tense final half before the children began stirring. Cost starts out dreamy, sleepy and very WASPy. But it builds to a real plot-driven climax with some suspense. That’s a hard trick to pull off, but this is a novel that earns its exciting ending.

Levi has written about the novel’s parallels with King Lear: the protagonist has two sons, a kindly one who suffers because the (possible) bastard son sucks all the attention and energy from the family.

I heard the parallels to Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The protagonist, Julia Lambert (itself a Woolfian name—Woolf’s mother was a Julia), a divorced mother of two sons, is a painter, up for tenure after years of adjuncting in order to raise her children. Like Lily Briscoe, she works and works at paintings that no one seems to believe in, hoping to have “her vision.” The notion of a summer house, too, is at the heart of both books: a place to retreat from the world’s cares. And, in both books, the world—in the form of violence, illness, danger, mortality, and death itself—intrudes, reminding the privileged ordinary characters that there is no safe place.

It’s a really smart book, with moments of great humor. I loved all the ways the title itself gained resonance: the house was a major part of the divorce settlement, its cost an issue between the estranged couple. There’s a cost, too, to putting your career on hold for children. And the cost of the adulteries that brought the marriage down is high. Then, as the second son, maybe conceived during an affair, descends into heroin addiction, the costs mount and mount. How much for heroin? How much for treatment? How much had we saved for the other son to go to law school? What will it cost to explain that cruel choice to the kind son who had been promised help?

The literary foundations that undergird the story, the Woolf, the Shakespeare, are not showing off but genuinely enriching intertexts. The writing is lovely, neither pretentious nor very experimental.

Anyway, Cost has been sitting staring at me all fall from its corner of the apartment, asking “When are you going to tell people about me?” Consider yourself told.