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Amanda Bennett’s ‘The Cost of Hope,’ reviewed by Carolyn See

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Very simply put, “The Cost of Hope” is the story of how journalist Amanda Bennett’s husband, Terence Bryan Foley — scholar, eccentric and dilettante extraordinaire — died. The narrative focuses on the progress of Foley’s illness and is set against the larger backstory of how much his treatment cost — i.e., the cost of “hope” that he might recover to live a long and happy life. This puts her memoir squarely in the midst of our debate about the American health-care system and how broken it actually is.

“The Cost of Hope” might be expected to come in under some vague heading like “Good and Good for You,” but Bennett moves her book far beyond all that because she’s such a terrific writer. She has an abundance of credentials: She’s worked on two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams, served as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in China, and became the first female editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. That journalistic skill enabled her to study years of her husband’s medical bills — almost 5,000 pages of documents — from all over the country and to interview many doctors and researchers who probably didn’t want to be pressed for the unvarnished, undecorated truth.

But Bennett — who married Washington Post Co. Chairman and chief executive Donald Graham in June — is primarily a born storyteller. She draws in the reader from almost the first page by describing the person she once was: a lonely woman holding down a supposedly glamorous job in Beijing in 1983. Under gloomy Communist rule, the huge, deserted-seeming city is so quiet at night that the loudest noise is the spooky whoosh of bicycles pedaling through dust clouds and fog.

No wonder the driven, accomplished journalist falls so easily for Foley: “He’s older than the others. Stouter. . . . He is here in Peking as a Fulbright scholar, on a one-year fellowship to China precisely to study the relations between China and the Soviet Union.” Except, that’s a big fat lie. He’s a soybean salesman! His explanation for lying to her? “You’re cute. You’re a journalist. I wanted to talk to you. . . . How long would you have talked to me if I told you I was in soybeans?” It’s the first of their many fights.

Bennett and Foley aren’t exactly Romeo and Juliet. They fight over everything — over the time of day, the temperature of the air, where to go after their plane lands. They pull telephones out of walls so they won’t receive each other’s calls. She’s devoted to her work, and he’s the type who plays more than 15 musical instruments and speaks six languages and was, for a while, a San Francisco cable car conductor.

Mismatched in so many ways, they are more miserable without each other than they are in the same room. So, after a few years, they get married back in the States and have their first child. “It is immediately clear,” Bennett states matter-of-factly, “that we are both very good parents. . . . A father for the first time at age forty-eight, he radiates the belief that there has never been another such perfect child born into this world.” She and her husband still fight, but they use some of their bursting energy to furnish houses, give great parties and adopt a child from their beloved China.

Then, one day as she’s cleaning up at a slumber party for their son, Terence turns up sick. He’s miserable. He has an ulcerative colon that is quickly removed, but the doctors find a shadow on his kidney. It’s cancer.

Their first choice, a debilitating round of traditional chemo, does him no good at all. But they are both trained gatherers of information and have excellent insurance. They try many treatments, see many doctors, haunt the halls of many hospitals. Their attitude is brisk, businesslike. Their marriage and, more important, their family keep an even keel as they live an interesting, innovative daily life. They recognize the cancer and deal with it, but they refuse to be unduly impressed by it.

Though many of Foley’s doctors seem fine and trustworthy, a couple of them are just a little reptilian. Prices for the same treatments vary by 100 percent or more. And he is definitely over-treated. Before he died in late 2007, Foley racked up an unnerving 76 CAT scans over the course of a seven-year illness. The total cost for his treatment was more than $600,000. And yet they got several more years of life together.

Was it worth it? Some readers will argue about that. Others will simply respond to a wonderful story about an engaging, even heroic, American family.

See reviews books regularly for The Post.

The literary calendar in Outlook gave the incorrect time for Tana French’s appearance Saturday at Politics and Prose Bookstore. The author of the new thriller “Broken Harbor” will speak at 6 p.m. For more information, call 202-364-1919.

THE COST OF HOPE The Story of a Marriage, a Family, and the Quest for Life By Amanda Bennett Random House. 228 pp. $26

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