by Roxana Robinson

Overview -

"Going from peace to war can make a young man into a warrior. Going from war to peace can destroy him."

Conrad Farrell has no family military heritage, but as a classics major at Williams College, he has encountered the powerful appeal of the Marine Corps ethic.  Read more...

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More About Sparta by Roxana Robinson

"Going from peace to war can make a young man into a warrior. Going from war to peace can destroy him."

Conrad Farrell has no family military heritage, but as a classics major at Williams College, he has encountered the powerful appeal of the Marine Corps ethic. "Semper Fidelis" comes straight from the ancient world, from Sparta, where every citizen doubled as a full-time soldier. When Conrad graduates, he joins the Marines to continue a long tradition of honor, courage, and commitment.

As Roxana Robinson's new novel, "Sparta," begins, Conrad has just returned home to Katonah, New York, after four years in Iraq, and he's beginning to learn that something has changed in his landscape. Something has gone wrong, though things should be fine: he hasn't been shot or wounded; he's never had psychological troubles--he shouldn't have PTSD. But as he attempts to reconnect with his family and his girlfriend and to find his footing in the civilian world, he learns how hard it is to return to the people and places he used to love. His life becomes increasingly difficult to negotiate: he can't imagine his future, can't recover his past, and can't bring himself to occupy his present. As weeks turn into months, Conrad feels himself trapped in a life that's constrictive and incomprehensible, and he fears that his growing rage will have irreparable consequences.

Suspenseful, compassionate, and perceptive, "Sparta "captures the nuances of the unique estrangement that modern soldiers face as they attempt to rejoin the society they've fought for. Billy Collins writes that Roxana Robinson is "a master at . . . the work of excavating the truths about ourselves"; "The Washington Post"'s Jonathan Yardley calls her "one of our best writers." In "Sparta," with the powerful insight and acuity that marked her earlier books ("Cost," "Sweetwater," and "A Perfect Stranger," among others), Robinson explores the life of a veteran and delivers her best book yet.
A "Washington Post "Notable Fiction Book of 2013

  • ISBN-13: 9780374267704
  • ISBN-10: 0374267707
  • Publisher: Sarah Crichton Books
  • Publish Date: June 2013
  • Page Count: 386

Related Categories

Books > Fiction > Literary
Books > Fiction > War & Military

Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2013-04-15
  • Reviewer: Staff

Robinson’s fifth novel (following Cost) is a detailed examination of the inner life of a Marine returning home after combat. Classics scholar Conrad Farrell, wanting to do “something big,” enlists in the belief that, as a soldier, he will be continuing a tradition going back to the ancient world. Following officer training at Quantico, Va., and four years of service in Iraq, he finds coming back to his family in Westchester, N.Y., a disorienting experience. He can’t get used to the safety of civilian life and struggles to reconnect with his family and his girlfriend, Claire, feeling overcome by rage at unexpected moments. He stays in contact, though, with the men who served under him. Suspecting that he’s suffering from PTSD, Conrad contacts the VA, but his needs are ignored again and again. Robinson brings us deep inside Conrad’s soul, and inside the suffocating despair and frustration that can stalk soldiers even when they are ostensibly out of harm’s way. By letting the reader live in Conrad’s skin, Robinson creates a moving chronicle of how we fail our returning troops. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit. (June)

BookPage Reviews

The unquiet on the internal home front

The only time this reviewer ever screamed back at her television was during an airing of David Rabe’s play Sticks and Bones. The show was about a returning Vietnam vet who’d been blinded in the war. His family was hung up on him sleeping with a prostitute or something else that was so beside the point that it was maddening. Roxana Robinson’s latest, long-awaited novel, Sparta, might make a reader just as mad.

Robinson’s previous novel, Cost, was unflinching in its portrayal of the ruination caused by a young man’s drug addiction. Sparta is nearly as devastating.

The protagonist is Conrad Farrell, a returning Iraq veteran, who’s come home to his loving, liberal, upper-middle-class family in upstate New York. Though none of them are as crazy as the family in Sticks and Bones, they too just don’t get it. Not only that, they don’t want to get it, despite their exhortations to Conrad to tell them “everything.” This is especially true of his mom, Lydia, a therapist. She’s a loving and caring mother—with an infuriating tendency to start coming unhinged anytime Conrad even hints at what really went on over there.

Still, we understand why an otherwise comfortable bunch like the Farrells can’t really cope when the chaos of war is dropped suddenly in their midst. We sympathize with Conrad’s girlfriend, Claire, even as we secretly wish she’d run as far from him as she can, even as we know Conrad desperately needs someone in his corner. But we also know that something very bad is going to happen if she stays.

Robinson’s sympathy for the deeply messed-up Conrad and his fellow vets is as impressive as her knowledge of their circumstances. How could she know what it’s like to be blown up by an IED? How does she know about the macabre jokes soldiers tell to keep themselves sane? In fact, Robinson interviewed several vets to give her book the verisimilitude it needed. Their stories must have been excruciating to hear, but they needed to be heard.

Their stories, or at least Conrad’s story, also deserve to be told. Full of the grief and deep compassion that’s becoming Robinson’s trademark, Sparta is a brilliant, necessary work.

BAM Customer Reviews