The fractured lives of four adult siblings—all of whom can’t face each other without a clandestine drink first—take center stage in The Nest, a thoroughly engaging debut novel from Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney.
The youngest Plumb siblings—Beatrice, Jack and Melody—find their dreams of claiming a large inheritance torn away to pay for the mistakes of the eldest, Leo. A serial womanizer, Leo crashed his Porsche while driving (an abundance of cocaine and martinis in his blood) with a 19-year-old waitress, who ultimately lost a foot in the collision. Paying the waitress off depleted nearly the entire fund, to the horror of Leo’s siblings.
The remarkably self-absorbed Leo was born with a charisma strong enough to exceed his failures, but at this stage of midlife he’s nearly depleted that well, facing his siblings with smiles and promising words they know to be fake. Asking for trust while concealing everything, Leo buys just enough time to fall back into the arms of his longtime on-again-off-again lover Stephanie.
The central paradox of The Nest is centered on a trust fund that the stock market inflated far beyond their late father’s expectations. What was intended to be a little mid-life boost became, in each sibling’s eyes, the answer to all the problems they face, financial or otherwise. Sweeney lifts back the veil in successive chapters to show how longing, for each main character, is ultimately for more than money.
Sweeney leaves it to one of the novel’s more sensible characters—Jack Plumb’s husband, Walker—to quietly observe what the Plumbs could never see: “money—and the entitlement that often accompanied just the idea of money—could warp relationships and memories and decisions.”
There are shades of Salinger’s Glass family in the dysfunction of the Plumb siblings, but the challenges Sweeney throws her characters bring them all vividly to life. Worries about real estate, parenting, relationships, college funds and a future without this long-assured nest egg hover around the Plumbs. Sweeney expertly weaves the chapters together, moving the spotlight from character to character as they come together and recede, each guided by a measure of selfish folly that Sweeney molds into a powerful narrative.
Along the way, Sweeney introduces a host of excellent secondary characters: a retired firefighter who digs through the World Trade Center rubble after his wife is killed on 9/11; a black teen girl, fashionable and bi-curious, whose steady self-assuredness becomes a model for others; a publisher whose dedication and slow, steady work pays off in stark contrast to the Plumb siblings; a waitress, who gains a new determination and ultimately finds love with a fellow amputee. Sweeney also delivers a delicious portrayal of a gossipy New York publishing scene that’s full of snide, two-faced writers and media empires built on shameful, exploitative click-bait.
Sweeney’s observant details of New York City elevate the setting into a character on its own right. The evolution of the city, highlighted in the novel’s shifts from the present to the past, points to the constant pressure from external forces that inevitably weigh against an individual’s carefully made plans.
Leo’s mistakes, towering selfishness and his unrepentant continuation along the same path ultimately force his siblings to reexamine their own worst faults. Sweeney avoids any miraculous changes in the characters, allowing Melody, Beatrice and Jack to steady themselves a bit, taking baby steps away from the self-delusion brought about by “the nest.”
The poignant ending is a reminder that just as surely as storms come, so too will they pass. Those who aren’t battered by their own self-destructive faults have the shelter they need to weather those storms.
Sweeney’s family saga balances not only comedy and tragedy, but scandal and achievement, trust and betrayal, belonging and isolation and the complex nature of a family’s love, both at its harshest and most tender.