At first glance, Julia Lambertís life seems much like any other of her generation, elderly parents visiting the somewhat dilapidated Maine summer home the family has owned for the past eighteen years. Fighting for this house after a difficult divorce, Julia maintains it as best she can, a New York professor on track for tenure. Her ex-husband, Wendell, has remarried.
Julia has arranged this visit with her parents, hoping that sons Steven and Jack will appear as well. The most troubling problem on Juliaís emotional horizon is her relationship with these two aging people: Ed, a neurosurgeon who dominated his wife and three children, and Katharine, whose mind is more fragmented with each passing day.
The critical Ed feels out of place in a world he cannot control but used to relish, daily confused by his daughterís recurring antagonism. Never given to introspection, Edís twilight years have obscured the argumentative nature and authoritarian stance that has tainted his relationship with his children. So when Steven arrives, Julia is relieved - until she inquires about her younger son, Jack.
Twenty-four-year-old Steven is still searching for his lifeís path, considering law school, perhaps with his grandfatherís financial assistance. Stopping to visit Jack, an itinerant musician, in New York, Steven is deeply disturbed by the squalor of Jackís environment, and by the obvious signs of rampant drug abuse. The brothersí loyalty runs deep, but their bonds are sorely tested by Jackís inability to focus or connect with his older sibling.
Family roles were cast long ago, Steven the good son, Jack the boy always in trouble. After much prodding, Steven admits his concerns to Julia, Jackís litany of problems long simmering just beyond the consciousness of the family. Suddenly, personal dilemmas dissolve in the face of yet another of Jackís emergencies, Julia phoning Wendell to confer about their son.
While Ed grumbles and Katharine drifts from thought to thought, a plan is formed, a family meeting to confront Jack and demand he stop his destructive lifestyle. Once begun, the event takes on a life of its own, a terrible malevolence that threatens every aspect of their world. There is a new family member at the dining room table: heroin.
From family meeting to expensive professional intervention to Jackís spiraling chaos, Robinson deftly chronicles the terrible consequences of such an addiction, the intrusive, albeit necessary presence of Ralph Carpenter, an ex-addict who runs a rehab facility in Florida. The extended family is gathered, Jack in an agony of discomfort, trapped by their good intentions when all he craves is the soothing release of his fix.
They have no language for this crisis, flummoxed by the ugly reality of Jackís infected needle tracks and the necessity for immediate action. Steven cannot bear turning against his brother or another drama; Wendell and Julia resist the horrors they are learning. All these lives are as brutalized as Jackís, a young man incapable of fighting these demons - nor does he want to.
In a harrowing account of the real-time destruction wrought by heroin, Robinson is unsparing, her characters literally writhing with discomfort and grief, the entire landscape of their lives forever altered. Everyday concerns are swept away in this pitched battle to save a young manís life, small worries an indulgence, insignificant in the face of an implacable and patient enemy.