Amanda Bennett tries to calculate "The Cost of Hope"

"The Cost of Hope" by Amanda Bennett (Random House)
"The Cost of Hope" by Amanda Bennett (Random House)
Posted: June 04, 2012

The Cost of Hope A Memoir By Amanda Bennett Random House. 240 pp. $26

Reviewed by Rachel Hadas

Like many memoirs, Amanda Bennett’s The Cost of Hope braids several narrative strands together.

For starters, there is an unusual and piquant courtship story. Bennett and Terence Foley, a charming, impulsive, and mysterious character, meet in 1983 in the city then still known as Peking. Bennett’s a journalist; Foley is not quite who he claims to be. Bennett is winningly frank to admit that the couple’ s relationship is tempestuous from the start, but their connection, however stormy, proves strong and enduring.

Thereupon the pace speeds up. Bennett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former editor of The Inquirer who will discuss her book on June 14 at the Free Library of Philadelphia, is a skillful writer, but it takes all her skill to prevent her headlong narrative from getting clotted and cluttered with incident once the couple marry and settle down in the States.

Except that they never do settle down. Children, apartments, holidays, parties, changes of venue as Bennett’s career gains momentum and the family moves from New York to Portland, Oregon to Lexington, Ky., to Philadelphia, the last stop, create a packed texture that makes the this fast-paced book feel longer than it is.

The packed quality derives in part from the third narrative strand. If courtship is Chapter One and careers and family Chapter Two, the medical piece of Bennett’s memoir, and its raison d’etre, is Chapter Three: around Christmas 2000, Terence undergoes abdominal surgery for intestinal pain, and coincidentally the doctors see a "shadow" or a "cyst" one on of his kidneys. Thereafter, until Terence’s death seven years later, the story is one of Bennett’s search for a cure, or even, as her title says, for hope.

Scans, drugs, clinical trials, chat rooms, chemotherapy, doctors, procedures, hospitals, more doctors – the pace remains dizzying. Daily life had to go on as normal too, so the complicated medical story is superimposed on, and sometimes entangled with, family incidents. Again, Bennett’s candor is winning, when she writes "I am so busy holding things together that I’m barely anxious at all."

All Bennett’s exceptional energy, and all the treatments currently available, though no doubt they prolong her husband’s life, cannot save him. A fourth narrative layer consists of Bennett’s exploration, following Terence’s death, of the decisions she and others made, the labyrinthine processes of diagnosis and treatment. Ever the indefatigable investigative journalist, Bennett retraces her steps, identifying pathologists she never met at the time, interviewing doctors who remember Terence’s case perfectly but still cannot always provide clear answers. Even the nature of the kidney cancer is murky: Collecting duct? Papillary? Prodded by Bennett years after the fact, a Seattle doctor is "still unmoved. He looks over his work from 2001 and still concludes he was right. So, I ask him, why didn’t Terence’s tumor behave like collecting duct? Why did it grow so slowly, when most collecting duct is ferocious in its speed and proliferation?" " Dr. Gown shrugs. “Some tumors don’t read the book," he says.”

At one point, looking back at her voluminous files, Internet correspondence on kidney cancer lists, and random research, Bennett concedes "I’ve gone into hyperdrive." Elsewhere, again, "Doing othing is not something I do well." At first reading one feels that Terence’s whirlwind energy and restless impulsiveness even after his illness is diagnosed shape the couple’s life, but Bennett’s more focused and equally indomitable energy at least matches his.

Bennett’s candor is nowhere more appealing than when she frankly admits to being murky about money. Who paid for what? Why does the identical procedure cost such different amounts at different facilities? Part of her retrospective fact-gathering involves poring over old financial records, no one’s favorite activity.

But The Cost of Hope is not -- at least, not primarily -- an angry expose of our health care system. It is a puzzled, loving picture of a very human response to illness. Bennett would rather do anything than sit still and let the cancer take its course, and who can blame her? She is honest enough to wonder after the fact how much all her frantic activity was undertaken for her own sake rather than her husband’s; she can see in hindsight how blind she had been for the last few months of his life to how dire Terence’s condition had become. Talking to him on the phone from China in September 2007, three months before he died, she can hear him coughing. His cancer has long since migrated to his lungs, but "I am not worried. I am not even vaguely concerned. I am thinking Claritin or NyQuil. It never occurs to me that here in Beijing, barely half a mile away from where we began, I am hearing the beginning of the end." When, days before Terence’s death, hospice is suggested, Bennett assumes he will survive for more than six months: "I am being practical, considering the weeks and months of daily visits that I assume the children and I will be making."

Bennett’s formidable resources of energy and investigative derring-do, not to mention her fierce loyalty and love, meant that she was able to pay the cost of hope. But her powerful title cuts both ways. Hope: not victory. And the cost was high. For if this book is inspiring in some ways, it is also exhausting and frustrating to follow all the blind leads, to accompany Bennett on a quest she refused to see would lead to no blinding clarity, no unconditional surrender. Even this reader’s mixed feelings are a testament to Bennett’s courage and honesty.

Rachel Hadas is Board of Governors Professor of English at Rutgers University and a prominent poet. Her books include "Strange Relation: A Memoir of Marriage, Dementia, and Poetry" (Paul Dry Books, 2011,” about the death of her husband last October from early-onset dementia.

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