MAY 6, 2016
WHAT IS ONE TO DO when assigned the review of a novel that is preceded by as much hype and hoopla as has been bestowed upon Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s debut, The Nest — including, but not limited to a seven-figure deal, glowing pull quotes from Amy Poehler and Elizabeth Gilbert, a debut on The New York Times best seller list, and the sale of movie rights announced mere days after the book landed in my mailbox? Read and report, of course. But it’s a heavy responsibility, let me tell you. One that weighed on me even more than this fat, nearly 400-page book on my lap, for the pleasant hours I spent reading it. Because, yes, dammit, I enjoyed it. Immensely.
And what’s wrong with that? Why that ugly word of defeat in an otherwise complimentary sentence? What is it about bright new literary stars that inspires dark thoughts? Envy, sure. But something else. Something somewhat messy, a concoction of defiance and doubt that makes one want to buck against the tide — to ask, at least, and try to answer, is it really all that? I’m not a bad person, truly. It’s just that my incentives, to use a phrase employed by one of Sweeney’s clever, cultured characters, don’t necessarily align with those of the author’s well-connected friends and champions. Or don’t they? Enjoying a story, rolling along with its rollicking plot, eyes shining in delight as one character after another steps blindly into a dog pile of his or her own making and then, somehow, manages to scrape a way out of it — isn’t this what any of us hope for when we crack open a book’s cover and invest hours of our lives in what we find inside?
I suppose not all of us, certainly not the serious-minded keepers at the gate. But a seven-figure deal isn’t a vote for inclusion in the canon. It’s a vote of confidence for the commercial viability of a product. A product meant to be consumed, in a rush of delight and pleasure, and quickly recommended for consumption by others. Listen, I have a stack — okay, stacks, plural, and tall ones, of books around my house, glaring at me month after month, (some, year after year), challenging my sense of myself as an intellectually curious person. So I suppose it makes me feel bad to enjoy a book this much. It makes me, perhaps, want to judge it, rather than myself, a little harshly.
And sure, one can find nits to pick. The tone of The Nest veers a bit wildly sometimes, full-on satirical here and rather more realist there. Certain characterizations look to be drawn with a cartoonist’s brush, and seem a bit judge-y themselves. But these are tiny splotches on the large, lushly populated canvas of the book, which concerns itself with the inherently universal theme of money and the ways having it, not having it, or expecting to have it and not getting it after all, ultimately shapes how we create — or destroy — our lives. Money isn’t used nearly often enough as the engine in contemporary fiction, though it’s largely the engine of real life, driving not just business, but politics, medicine, education, science, religion, yes, and even, in many cases, marriage and other personal and familial relationships. Sweeney has smartly — brilliantly — recognized money for what it is: a powerful motivating force and built-in plot driver. Like her literary ancestors (Austen, Dickens, James, and Wharton, to name a few — though in tone Thackeray seems perhaps closest), Sweeney nails the social and psychological import of money in a particular time and place.
In that time and place live a motley crew of siblings: Leo, Bea, Jack, and Melody Plumb. In describing the Plumbs’ childhood, Sweeney writes, “the contents of the Plumb house existed in varying states of disrepair,” and the same could be said of the adult Plumbs themselves, whose main bond with one another is on paper, as equal beneficiaries of their late father’s trust. This is the Nest of the title, a safe haven into which they have each, for years, been plotting a comfortable landing. But like the fallen nest that Leo, the charmed elder brother, encounters (a bit conveniently) after a storm in Central Park, the Plumbs’ nest has taken quite a beating. Leo, you see, has made a shambles of his life after one bad, drug-fueled decision on the heels of a decade’s worth of them. Their mother has allowed the Nest to bail him out. Leo’s depletion of the Nest sets the story in motion, as Sweeney begins to unpack the many bad decisions each of the Plumbs have made while counting on the Nest to bail them out as well. Melody, the youngest, comes off as the most sympathetic of the four (if a bit simpering), and it’s the occasion of her 40th birthday, a few short months from the start of the novel, that was to trigger the disbursement of the Nest. She and her husband are underwater on their too-expensive house, with twin daughters approaching college age. Jack’s been floating his sluggish antiques business with a second mortgage, a boneheaded move he’s doubled down on by keeping it hidden from his husband. And Bea, while financially secure enough, needs Leo to make good not on his financial debt so much as what she perceives to be his literary obligation to her, having served, for most of their adult lives, as her subject, muse, editor, and champion.
Which brings us to Leo himself. While Sweeney portrays him as a fallen charmer — a handsome, charismatic, intelligent winner prone to indolence following great and early success, not to mention a nasty addiction as a means of escape from the emptiness of his current life — the character he immediately conjures is a barely sympathetic one: Undine Spragg, the antiheroine of Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. Like Undine, Leo is selfish and superficial, rapaciously so, nearly to the point of caricature. While Sweeney works admirably to round him out, he remains, by design it would seem, a bit of the villain throughout, hurting everyone he brushes up against, especially those closest to him. In this way, Sweeney paints an accurate picture of what it’s like to be related to, and love, an addict. But his siblings, along with an appealing, on-again ex-girlfriend, put their faith once again in the Golden Boy, hoping he’ll make good on all their expectations. That he can, but might not, is distressing, and it’s the tension of what Leo could do, might do, that drives the reader, along with Bea, Jack, and Melody, forward, hoping for the best.
The ride, with Sweeney behind the wheel, is swift and mostly sure. She covers a lot of ground while rooting the story almost entirely in Manhattan and Brooklyn, displaying a canny perceptiveness of new media princes, literary babes, 9/11 responders, outer borough strivers, real estate booms and busts, and gay love, both mature and newly blooming. There is a very brief, touristic foray into Los Angeles, only a paragraph or two, which, to this native Angeleno’s eyes, accurately portrays the view of those New Yorkers who are most contemptuous of us. And yet. For every mean-spirited, one-dimensional stereotype, there are a hundred pages of flesh-and-bone, emotionally true storytelling. What’s at stake for three of the four Plumbs, and several tertiary characters, Sweeney makes perfectly clear in sharp, funny prose. For Leo, however, the stakes feel a bit manufactured, even as deep into the story as page 237, and even for his long-suffering girlfriend, Stephanie, who, at that juncture, wonders aloud (precisely as I had been) whether anyone actually cares about Leo’s great scandal.
Though Leo proves to be too big an enigma, too rotten at the core to justify his central position in the narrative, and too selfish to ultimately move the reader, he does offer the novel’s best insight about the allure of wealth and what he longs for:
It wasn’t luxury he missed, it was surprise. The things money could buy weren’t the reward; the reward was to feel lifted above everyone else, to get a look at the other side of the fence where the grass was rarely greener but always different and what he loved was the contrast—and the choice.
Given an equal sum, each and every one of us would buy something different. How Leo chooses to spend what money he has left is certainly a surprise. As are his other choices at the end of the novel. But I won’t divulge any more — I’ll leave the discovery of those specifics to readers — except to say there are worse ways to spend a million dollars, far worse, than to bring us a novel like The Nest.