The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Wthe nesthat’s not to like about a book that chronicles a dysfunctional family’s looming implosion? Parents going off the rails. Spoiled siblings squabbling over long-held grudges. Boozy tantrums during holiday dinners. It’s a perfect blend of bruised feelings and selfish behavior. Think Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections and, more recently, Tessa Hadley’s The Past.

Or Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s immensely enjoyable debut novel, The Nest. Sweeney doesn’t shy away from mining the oft-explored themes that typically accompany familial shenanigans. But she also adds two elements that make the book unique: less whiny characters and a genuinely satisfying, authentically positive ending.

On that second point, before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s dispense with the plot particulars.

In one of the novel’s early scenes, each of the Plumb siblings is downing a cocktail at a different watering hole near New York City’s Grand Central Station. In from the ritzy Westchester suburbs, Melody — the youngest at 39 — obsessively monitors the whereabouts of her twin 16-year-old daughters on her phone’s Stalkerville app while imbibing the least expensive glass of white wine at the Hyatt Hotel’s lobby bar.

Predictably cranky Jack sips an improperly muddled cocktail at the hidden and exclusive Campbell Apartments with his new husband, Walker, while Beatrice — onetime Manhattan “Glitterary Girl,” now struggling writer — is perched on her usual stool at Murphy’s Irish Pub.

When the Plumbs eventually converge on the Grand Central Oyster Bar at the agreed upon time, they are a little tipsy and a lot peeved at their older brother Leo who, a few months before, drunkenly got behind the wheel of his Porsche and collided with an SUV.

Because of his reckless antics, a large portion of the money from their joint trust — a fund they’ve nicknamed the Nest — has been used without their knowledge (or blessing) to pay the medical bills of the badly injured 19-year-old undocumented waitress who was getting frisky with the then-married Leo at the time of the accident. The siblings’ loosely hatched plan is to confront their brother and somehow get the cash returned.

To even the most naive reader, it’s clear that Leo — fresh out of rehab and already on a drug run in Central Park an hour before the meet-up — will never recoup what he owes. Once a lout, always a lout. Still, it’s a testament to Sweeney’s chops as a writer that the siblings’ stubborn attempts to corner him over the next 300 pages continue to command our attention.

But what makes The Nest such a pleasure to read is not the smug satisfaction we get from observing Leo repeatedly fail to deliver on his promises. It’s that by watching the other characters keep secrets from each other while chipping away at their own shortcomings, we understand why they are simultaneously flawed and refreshingly human.

Take Bea, for instance. It’s only when she stops writing derivative stories about Archie — a character directly based on ne’er-do-well Leo — that she can finally get over the writer’s block that’s been dogging her for decades. Or Leo’s too-good-for-him, on-again-off-again girlfriend, Stephanie, who finds the best reason to finally purge Leo from her life: an accidental pregnancy.

Even Nora and Louise, Melody’s twins, aren’t immune to Sweeney’s scrutiny. Rather than plunk two stock adolescents in the background, she occasionally gives them the spotlight. The scenes where Nora questions her sexuality and struggles with how to broach the subject with her family are among the most endearing and poignant in the book.

According to the book’s press release, the idea for The Nest grew out of a short story the then-50-year-old Sweeney wrote during an MFA program at Bennington College. Over the next four years, the story evolved into a novel, which garnered a seven-figure advance at the end of 2014.

It’s easy to see why the book attracted so much attention. The Nest is like a love letter to old New York, with scores of lush details that root the story in time and place. The growing AIDS crisis that decimated the gay community, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the cleanup of ground zero and the recovery of precious artifacts, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s iron-fisted reign — each milestone is reflected in these pages and adds to the portrait of a strangely terrifying era when New York was at its most vulnerable and proud.

Sweeney’s take on the shifting whims of the publishing industry and its gossip-fueled takedowns of those deemed unworthy — What’s hot? Who’s definitely not? — is also right on target. It’s often funny, too. When Bea overhears a fellow Glitterary Girl trashing her at a predictably dull Upper West Side dinner party (“I never loved her stories. I never got what all the fuss was about. I mean, they were cute — the Archie stuff — it was clever, but the New Yorker? Please.”), and impulsively dumps a plateful of cookies into her purse in retaliation, the moment is both unexpected and priceless.

The Plumb matriarch once said of her offspring: “They are so impractical, and yet still so entitled.” The combination gets at the heart of why  works. It’s entertaining to be a fly on the wall as the siblings muck up their privileged lives. But because Sweeney has invested so much in their journey toward self-actualization, aside from Leo, we’re rooting for their collective success.

As for that “authentically positive” ending? Without giving away any spoilers, it’s safe to say that Sweeney does tie up loose ends. But not in ways you might expect. What’s that adage about money not always buying happiness?

Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (March 24, 2016)

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