From New York Times bestselling author Courtney Cole comes “a raw, powerful, heart-wrenching read” (Robyn Harding, international bestselling author of The Party) about a son’s heroin addiction and its harrowing effects on both him and his mother, reminiscent of the #1 New York Times bestselling memoir Beautiful Boy.
There comes a time when offering your life for your child’s doesn’t work, when you realize that it’ll never be enough.
The cold needle in his warm vein was a welcome comfort to my son at first. But then it became the monster that kept us apart.
Heroin lied, and my son believed. It took him to a world where the last year didn’t happen, to a place where his father was still alive. What Beck didn’t understand was that it couldn’t bring his father back from the dead. It couldn’t take away his pain, not permanently.
You think it can’t happen to you, that your kids, your family, will never be in this situation. I thought that too. But you’re wrong.
Step into our world, and see for yourself. Watch my golden boy become a slave to this raging epidemic. Watch me try and save him.
Drug addiction comes with a price. Trust me, you’re not equipped to pay it.
Don’t miss this heartwrenching, evocative, yet hopeful novel—“it will rip your heart out but then leave you knowing there is a light at the end of the tunnel” (Nikki Sixx, New York Times bestselling author of The Heroin Diaries).
HE’S FOAMING AT THE MOUTH as they load him on the gurney, and he looks at me with wild eyes.
“Angel,” it sounds like he says, but his voice is thick and gurgly and it’s hard to make out his words.
“What?” I ask quickly, trying to get through the EMTs to grab his hand. “I’m not an angel. You’re not dying, Beck. Do you hear me?”
Nothing feels real as I watch the paramedics slam the ambulance doors closed. They latch with finality, sealing my son inside, and panic erupts in my heart as red and blue flash against my skin. He can’t be alone.
“I want to ride with him,” I hear myself say, and they shake their heads.
“We’re sorry, ma’am. There’s not enough room. Follow us in your car.”
I’m not sure how I find the front door to grab my purse and my keys, or how I make it to my car. I can’t even feel my foot as I press the stiff accelerator. It doesn’t occur to me that I should perhaps put real clothes on, so I find myself chasing the ambulance in my bathrobe through the Chicago streets.
It’s not for five more minutes that I remember my other children, and with a gasp, I call my sister.
“Sam, you’ve got to come,” I manage to say around the lump in my throat, a giant piece of terror that is stuck halfway down.
“What’s wrong?” she says quickly, even though she was sleeping and I can hear it in her voice.
“Beck.” My voice breaks, and I can’t breathe. I try to inhale and it doesn’t work. I can’t speak. It’s Beck. Of course it’s Beck.
“Nat?” My sister is urgent and her voice is thin. “Nat! Talk to me! You’re scaring me.”
“We’re on the way to the hospital,” I manage to gasp. “Dev and Annabelle are at home. Sleeping. Please . . . go there.”
That’s all I can squeeze out.
“I’m on my way,” she says, and I can hear her throwing her covers off and grabbing her clothes. “Vinny, we’ve gotta go,” she tells her husband. I hear him mumble that he’s asleep, but I can’t think anymore.
All I can do is focus on the back of the ambulance, on the perfectly square doors and silver handles. My son is in there, and I can’t lose him.
“Nat?” Sam asks, and she’s hesitant. “Is Beck . . .”
“He’s alive,” I say limply. “Or he was when they took him. But barely. I don’t . . . I can’t . . .”
I hang up because saying any of those words out loud might influence the outcome. I might tempt fate and God might take my son if I doubt Him.
“Don’t take him, don’t take him, please don’t take him,” I plead under my breath as I weave in and out of traffic, trailing the ambulance like I’m attached with a tether. The siren wails and it’s monotonous but it’s good. It’s good the siren is on. They would only turn it off if . . . if . . .
I can’t think it.
Beck is in that truck.
He’s breathing. I have to believe that’s true.
The hospital is a beacon of light and hope as we pull in. I barely remember to put my car in park before I jump out and leave it in the middle of the lane, the tires wrenched haphazardly toward the curb.
“Ma’am, you can’t park there,” a guy in a security uniform says with his fake badge, but I don’t answer. I toss him my keys and push my way to the doors, and that’s when I see him.
They’ve pulled him out of the ambulance, and he’s so still, so white. He’s got the body of a man and the face of a boy, and he’s got vomit in his hair. One hand dangles over the edge of the gurney, orange flecks dripping from his fingers to the floor, but no one notices.
“Beck,” I breathe, but he doesn’t open his eyes. “Beck,” I say louder, as loud as I can. His mouth is slack, but he’s not dead—he can’t be dead, because someone is pumping his heart with her fists. She’s running next to the gurney, and she’s pounding on his heart, making it beat.
“Coming through,” she yells at the doors, and there is a team of people working on him. They’re frantic, and that’s not good.
I chase after them, through the emergency room, through the people, but someone grabs me at a giant set of double doors, the gateway to the important rooms.
“You can’t go in there,” a nurse tells me.
“That’s my son,” I try to tell her, but she doesn’t care. “Beck,” I scream, and I try to see through the windows, but I can’t because he’s gone. “I love you, Beck. Stay here. Stay here.”
The nurse grasps my arm, and I can’t stand anymore. My legs are tired and the adrenaline . . . it numbs me. I collapse beside her and she tries to hold me up, but she can’t . . . I’m on the ground.
My face is wet—when did I start crying?
“You have to save my son,” I beg her, my fingers curled into her arm. I stare into her eyes. Hers are green, ringed with blue, and she looks away. Something about her seems so familiar, something about those eyes.
“We’ll try, ma’am,” she says uncertainly. It’s the uncertainty that kills me. “We’ll do everything we can. I’m going to take you to a quiet room and give you a blanket. Is there anyone I can call for you?”
I shake my head no. “I already called my sister.”
“Okay,” the nurse says quietly, and her name tag says Jessica. She takes me to a waiting room, a quiet private one, the ones they use when the outcome might not be good. I know that because I’ve been here before.
I swallow hard and she puts a cup of coffee in my hand.
As she does, she pushes a stray hair out of her face and her bracelet catches my eye. A simple chain with a silver dolphin on it.
“You were here the night my husband was brought in,” I say slowly. “Weren’t you? Do you remember me?”
It was over a year ago. Of course she doesn’t remember me.
But Jessica nods.
“I’m so sorry about your husband,” she tells me now, her voice quiet and thick. “I swear to you, we did everything we could.”
“I know,” I tell her. Because I do. The accident was so bad, there’s no way anyone could’ve survived. Except for Beck. He lived. But Matt . . . his injuries were insurmountable. That’s what the doctor told me that night.
I stare at the door, and this is the same room and that is the same door and this is the same blue-and-white-tiled floor. For a minute, I’m back in that moment and the doctor is coming in. I’d waited for hours and his face was so grave and I knew, I knew, before he could utter a word.
I shook my head because I didn’t want to hear what was coming next, but he spoke anyway.
Matt’s injuries were insurmountable, he’d said. We did everything we could.
But everything wasn’t enough, and my husband died.
“Is it a different doctor tonight?” I ask suddenly. “I need a different doctor. One who can save my son.”
I know it’s illogical. I know it was never the doctor’s fault, but it doesn’t matter because Jessica is nodding. “It’s a different doctor tonight,” she tells me. “Dr. Grant, and he’s very, very good.”
“Okay,” I whisper. “Okay.”
“If you need anything, you tell me,” Jessica says, and I can see that she means it. She likes me. Or she feels sorry for me. It doesn’t matter which. I nod and she’s gone, and I’m alone.
Just like I was a year ago, and just like that night all I can do is pace.
I’m a caged mama wolf and there’s nothing I can do, but I know that if I stop moving, Beck might die. My energy is attached to his energy. I have to move. It all depends on me.
So I walk in circles.
I walk six paces, over the six white tiles, then I turn, taking three steps over the blue. I tread back six paces over the white, and then turn again, taking three more over the blue.
I will not stop, Beck. I won’t fail you. I won’t.
It becomes rhythmic, and I match my breaths with my steps. I’m a machine, a timekeeper, a being made of clockwork as I walk in circles, marking time. Every step I take, Beck is still alive. I feel it in my heart. It’s all up to me.
I’m alone in the room, and the door is ajar. The lights in here are dimmed, but the lights out there, out in the hospital, are bright. A wedge of that brightness falls across the floor, across the line of blue and white tiles, and I step over it time and again, determined not to touch it.
I won’t step into the light, Beck. I won’t go into the light if you don’t. Promise me.
They won’t let me see my boy, but if I just think hard enough, if I feel it hard enough, he’ll hear me. He’ll hear my begging and my pleas, and he’ll forgive me for everything, and he’ll live.
Please, please, please.
I pause for just a second on the far edge of a blue tiled square. The tile is dog-eared here in this spot, standing out amid the other perfectly polished ones. This one is cracked, and I’d stepped on it a hundred times a year ago when I was waiting for news of my husband.
Kneeling now, I finger that crack.
Maybe if I hadn’t paused then, if I hadn’t focused so much on the imperfections of this one tile, Matt would’ve lived.
I hadn’t moved enough that night. I didn’t save him.
Bolting to my feet, I restart my pacing, furious now. I’m a woman possessed, and I don’t care about being rational. I don’t care about logic.
I care about saving my son.
I would do anything to save him. I’d offer my own life in trade. I’d make a deal with the devil.
“Tell me what I need to do,” I whisper adamantly to God. “Just tell me.”
Through a heavy fog, I hear the hospital sounds instead of an answer.
The beeps of machines, the squeak of nurses’ shoes on the floors. I hear gurneys rolling and curtains being shoved back, the metallic rings scraping against the metal rods. I smell the waxed floors and the iodine and the sterility, and it makes me sick.
An overwhelming blanket of dread drapes me, wet and suffocating, covering me up. I feel so suddenly hopeless, so bereft.
“This can’t be happening,” I whisper to the empty room. “How can this be happening? What kind of God would do this to me again?”
But then I’m instantly scared. “I’m sorry,” I tell Him. “I didn’t mean it.” But I kind of did. I just can’t say it aloud. I can’t have Him punish Beck for my doubts.
“Don’t take my son,” I say instead. “Please, please, God. Don’t take my son. You took my husband. Please don’t take my boy. I can’t deal with that. It’s been enough already. You know it’s been enough.”
I leave it at that, and I begin to pace again, because in my addled and illogical mind, my movement also has a direct correlation to how hard the doctors will work on Beck. My steps are frantic and fast, and that’s good. It’s something I can do. I can power the doctors with my energy; I can push the breath in and out of my son’s lungs with my steps.
I’ve made two hundred laps around the tiles when the door is pushed open, and the light opens onto the floor and I look up, and I’m frantic, and I expect to see the doctor.
But I don’t.
It’s Kit, my husband’s best friend, and he’s filling the doorway with his giant shoulders. He’s a Great Dane in a sea of Labradors. He always has been.
“You don’t need to be here,” I tell him immediately. “It’s fine. I’m fine. Beck is going to be fine.”
“Tell me how he is, Nat,” Kit says calmly, unaffected. He steps inside the door and grasps my elbow in an effort to get me to pause. I shake him off because I can’t stop. Not for anyone.
“I don’t know,” I say, and I’m helpless. “He overdosed, I think. He was on my porch and there was so much vomit, and he was . . .”
My voice trails off, because I can’t relive that moment.
“What has the doctor said?”
“He hasn’t been out at all. They were . . . Jesus, they were doing CPR on him, Kit. His heart wasn’t working.”
There are tears on my cheeks even though my heart is a block of ice. I don’t know how that’s possible. Kit tries to hug me, to pull me against his big chest, but I can’t, I can’t. I pull away.
“Kit, stop. I have to move.”
The rejection and pain on his face cut me a little, but I can’t worry about that. I can only worry about Beck, and I have to move.
I feel Kit watching me as I pace, and I know that I look crazy. But I don’t care.
“Nat, is there anything at all I can do?”
I feel him trying to read my thoughts and I look away. I want to tell him to just leave me alone so that I don’t have to worry about anyone but myself in this moment. I word it more delicately than that.
“No. There’s nothing. I just want to absorb the quiet and pull myself together, honestly.”
He pauses, unsure.
“I mean it,” I insist. “You know how I get. I handle things better alone.”
He finally nods, albeit reluctantly.
“Call me if you need me,” Kit says before he turns to leave. I nod, and he’s gone and I’m back to being alone.
I pace and time bends and blends.
Jessica brings me another coffee at some point, and I’m dizzy from pacing.
“Your friend wants you to drink this.” She pushes the hot Styrofoam into my hand.
“The big blond guy? He’s out in the public waiting room.”
I exhale. Of course Kit didn’t leave. He wouldn’t. He’s the closest friend we have. He would never leave.
“Thank you. Is there any news?”
She shakes her head. “They’re still working.”
I nod, and my head is a ball on a stick, bobbing like a bobblehead doll.
She starts to leave, but I stop her.
“Jessica? What time is it?”
She checks her watch.
“It’s one forty-seven.”
I exhale slowly with relief. Matt died at 1:21. Beck outlived him. I know it’s illogical, but I don’t give a fuck at this moment. It seems important.
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This readers group guide for Saving Beckincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When Natalie Kingsley’s husband, Matt, dies in a car crash on his way home from a college visit with their teenage son, their happy family life is irreparably damaged. One year later, she’s a widow still unmoored by grief, struggling to raise three grieving children who feel as if they have somehow lost both parents.
Her older son, Beck, helps Natalie with daily responsibilities that she can’t seem to manage alone. But in private, Beck agonizes over his role as driver of the car the night his father died. Unwilling to accept that a faulty seat belt is to blame, Beck turns to heroin to cope, and he quickly becomes addicted to the temporary escape it offers.
For Natalie and Beck, heroin threatens to endanger the fragile recovery that they have painstakingly achieved. Separately, and together, they must fight for their family’s survival.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Describe Natalie Kingsley’s condition when she arrives at Mercy Hospital with her oldest son, Beck. What does Natalie’s heightened awareness of the private waiting area in the hospital—its sounds, smells, lighting, decor—reveal about her emotional state? How does her husband’s recent death intensify her perceptions?
2. “I feel my chest rise off the table, breaking rank from the rest of my body, and I feel myself thrashing against my will, yet it doesn’t hurt. . . . I don’t know why I’m able to think calmly when my body is out of control” (page 14). How does the author’s decision to incorporate Beck’s internal monologue into the novel’s narrative affect your understanding of his character and his motivations? How would you describe Beck’s awareness of his condition and his whereabouts?
3. Compare Beck’s relationship with his father, Matt, to his relationship with his mother, Natalie. With whom does he seem most able to express himself and why? In your discussion, consider examining his parents’ individual feelings about Beck’s athletic and academic pursuits, his future goals, his girlfriend, and his strengths and weaknesses as a person.
4. “Beck was the one who had been feeding the kids for me; he even paid the utility bill for me yesterday. . . . He couldn’t be that responsible and also smoke pot on the side” (pages 66–67). In the aftermath of Matt’s death, why does Beck assume the role of co-parent? In what respects do his self-medicating and use of illicit drugs reveal the impulsivity of a typical adolescent, the rebelliousness of one who cannot bear the new burdens imposed on him, or something altogether different?
5. Beck’s first experience with heroin leads him to seek out more drugs in a run-down Chicago building populated by drug users that he imagines as his “new family.” Why does Beck want to leave his family and the comforts of home? To what degree are Beck’s family and friends responsible for his drug use?
6. “It’s Kit, my husband’s best friend, and he’s filling the doorway with his giant shoulders. He’s a Great Dane in a sea of Labradors” (page 11). How would you characterize Natalie’s feelings for Kit? How does Kit’s changing role in the Kingsley family following the accident disrupt the stability Natalie has sought to reclaim?
7. How would you describe the sibling dynamic between Natalie and her younger sister, Sam LaRosa? In the aftermath of Matt’s accident, what substantive changes in Beck does Sam observe that Natalie is incapable or unwilling to acknowledge? To what extent are these changes visible to others close to Beck, like his girlfriend, Elin, and his younger siblings, Annabelle and Devin?
8. How do the present-tense and flashback narratives of Natalie and Beck provide a more comprehensive picture of their family’s experience? Which character’s voice or story did you find more compelling, and why? Why do you think the author chose to write the novel using these dual—and at times, dueling—perspectives?
9. Discuss the character of Angel and the role she plays in the novel. What does she represent to Beck? How did you react as a reader upon learning that Angel was a figment of Beck’s drug-addled imagination? To what extent does Beck’s interpretation of Angel—that she was the embodied spirit of Sarah Greene, the other driver, who perished in the car accident—seem persuasive to you? What are some other possible ways readers might understand Angel?
10. How does the premature death of Matt Kingsley impact each member of his immediate family? How does Natalie’s grief exacerbate Beck’s feelings of guilt for his role in his father’s death? If you were a therapist treating the Kingsley family, what would you encourage them to explore as they come to terms with their profound loss? To what extent do you think Natalie and Beck could have taken more preventive measures to avoid Beck’s overdose?
11. “People on the outside looking in think that I should’ve been able to fix it. That if I FORCED him into getting help, he would’ve beat the addiction. That’s not the way it works” (Author’s Note, page 290). How did the author’s decision to relate her experiences as a mother dealing with her son’s drug addiction affect you as a reader? Why do you think she chose to do so at the end of the novel, rather than in a foreword?
12. Saving Beck touches on many complex social issues of our time—including illicit drug use, digital privacy, drug addiction, rehabilitation, adolescent/parent conflict, the consequences of extramarital sex, the death of a parent, distracted driving, vehicular homicide, grief, depression, and prescription drug abuse. Of the many issues the author highlights, which especially captured your imagination as a reader, and why?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Imagine that Natalie is a cherished member of your book club. How might fellow club members support her as she mourns her husband and despairs over the emergency hospitalization of Beck? Members of your club may want to share stories of acts of compassion and kindness they have received during difficult moments in their own lives, or discuss what they wish had been said to or done for them.
2. Over the course of the novel, Beck and Natalie experience many different stages of grief. Have members of your club reflect on losses they and those they know well have experienced. What kinds of healthy activities enabled them to come through these painful moments intact? In what ways does the novel’s depiction of grief in the aftermath of the death of a loved one echo their own lived experiences?
3. In its depiction of a high-achieving student from a well-to-do family whose life is nearly destroyed by illegal drug use, Saving Beck upends commonly held perceptions that drug addiction happens to people in less stable circumstances. Have members of your club reflect on their own direct or indirect experiences with substance abuse and discuss as a group the current attitudes toward illicit drug use in their wider communities.
4. The catalyst for the plot of Saving Beck is a fatal car accident involving substance abuse on the part of one young driver, distracted driving by another, and a potentially faulty seat belt. Ask your book club to defend the author’s decision to incorporate these narrative ambiguities into the novel. To what extent does the author’s implicit refusal to render judgment on her characters’ choices place the burden to do so on the reader? How does the author’s use of two narrative perspectives further complicate the reader’s assignment of responsibility?
Courtney Cole grew up in rural Kansas and now lives with her husband and kids in Florida, where she writes beneath palm trees and is still in love with the idea of magic and happily-ever-after. She is the author of Saving Beck and Mine.
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