Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Nest, by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s debut novel proves to be an ambitious, generous, intelligent comedy about the complex and ever shifting dynamics between four middle-class adult siblings, all in a desperate race to get their hands on a family nest egg left by their long deceased father. 

The Plumb children all have money problems, most of which they’ve brought upon themselves, either through trying to climb the status ladder, simple greed or poor management. The worst offender is Leo, the eldest. His early career was blessed with luck and timing, resulting in him making a small fortune running his SpeakEasy media conglomerate. However, a drug habit and a penchant for picking up young women has landed him in all sorts of trouble. Next is Bea, a smart, sassy fiction writer who enjoyed early success with a collection of short stories. Much promise was invested in her career and her agent has spent years waiting for Bea to finally finish a much anticipated first novel, but procrastination and career detours have whittled Bea’s creative output to almost zero.

Jack Plumb, the only gay sibling, has married his longtime partner, Walker, but all is not well. His small antique business is struggling, and he has secretly got himself into some eye watering debt. If kind, sensible Walker should find out, then his 20 year relationship could be over. The youngest is Melody, married to the dependable Walter. They have two teenage girls, Louisa and Nora. Melody aspires to a bigger house and expensive education for her girls. Her high standards mean she’s never satisfied.

What all four siblings really need is money. And the quicker the better. Luckily, help is on the way in the form of the family’s joint trust fund, known as The Nest. Started up by their father, Leonard, the fund has grown quite substantially through a series of speculative market booms. With Melody’s fortieth birthday looming, The Nest is soon to mature. Could all their woes be at an end? Unfortunately not. Due to an indiscretion (and resulting accident) involving Leo and a young waitress, and requiring a substantial payout, their mother Francie has decided to dip into The Nest ahead of time to bail Leo out. Furious, Bea, Jack and Melody must scramble to try and squeeze out whatever money there might be left.

With a large cast and carefully interlocking plot, The Nest paints a fast moving portrait of messy family rivalry and discontent amongst a group of adults who could have it all, if they only learnt some self-control. Each character is sharply observed but also sympathetically drawn. Despite all their flaws, Sweeney’s characters are easy to identify with. While the main theme of the novel is, to use Tolstoy’s formula, an examination of how unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, the story also provides a muscular cultural and financial history of the last fifteen years. It  brilliantly weaves the personal fate of its characters into a larger contemporary story of  war, dodgy markets and an economy gone haywire. There’s even a gulf war veteran and 9/11 widower that play integral parts in the plot. Its broad scope has elements of that quintessential 19th century classic, Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now.

Funny and human, capturing life in all its chaos and emotional turbulence, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest enthralls from the first page to the last.

The Nest, by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney. Published by HarperCollins. ISBN:  9780008168681 RRP: $29.99

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