The Nest an Impressive Debut

The Nest (2016)
By Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
HarperCollins, 353 pages.

The plum is a chubby, often delicious fruit with an attractive exterior. It’s also one that spoils easily and can sometimes hide inner rot behind its shiny skin. That’s also the case of the sound-alike Plumb family in April D’Aprix Sweeney’s superb debut novel. The relationships in this book are so acidic that you might want to don protective gear before opening it. Let’s put it this way, even Amy Poehler’s endorsement notes how nasty the Plumbs are, and she’s no shrinking violet! Poehler also likens the Plumbs to a disaster from which one can’t divert the eyes—and she’s right.

The Plumbs are: older brother Leo, a golden boy turned narcissist; Beatrice, a promising fiction writer who has fallen to the status of one-hit wonder; Walker, a gay antiques dealer furtively spending his husband’s money on sure-fire schemes that aren’t; and sad sack, about-to-turn 40 Melody, who is married to good-guy Walter, is the mother of twin teens—Nora and Louisa—and is mortgaged above the gunwales in a New York City market in the throes of the housing market collapse. What keeps any Plumb afloat is the promise of the “Nest,” a trust fund set up by their late father to be doled out when Melody reaches that magic 40th birthday.

That’s the plan, anyhow. None of them actually knows how much is in the kitty, but each has planned as if it the Nest will feather their lifetime dreams. After the chaos of 9/11 and the Bush recession, though, the Nest evolved into a theoretical lifeline. Through circumstances you need to discover for yourselves, Leo jeopardizes the Nest. Or will he save it? Like everything about the Plumbs, that very question touches off incendiary discussion. Even worse, it leads several family members to hatch even dumber schemes.

Sweeney’s book is tightly plotted in ways that heighten drama in plausible ways. The dialogue is funny in ways that make you roar out loud one moment, and cringe the next. The novel also contains auxiliary characters of varying degrees of believability: Paul Underwood, who publishes a literary magazine; Beatrice’s one-time agent and Leo love-interest, Stephanie; Plumb matron Francie, who  washes her hands of her children, yet demonstrates the roots of their acidity; 19-year-old Matilda, who has the misfortune of thinking Leo will help her; a smart black teen named Simone, whose orbit intersects with Nora’s; and New York City fireman Tommy O’Toole, who (literally) harbors a secret connected to his wife’s death when the Twin Towers fell.

As you can see, that’s a lot of characters, and it’s a testament to Sweeney’s skill that she can bring them all to life. It does, however, cause some motive believability problems in some sections of the book. When it comes to the capacity for selfishness and self-inflicted wounds, however, there’s very little that happens to the Plumb principals that defy internal logic. My sole complaint is that, to a minor degree, Sweeney wrote herself into a corner from which she had to extract her characters too quickly. In this sense, the fate of several of the Plumbs seems contrived and overly generous.

This novel has been on my bucket list for over a year; it took that long for my local library’s wait list to clear. I was glad I persisted. Or, do I mean to say that I’m ashamed to have spent so much time with such thoroughly unlikable characters? It often feels like the real Nest is one of vipers! But, hey, Amy Poehler isn’t bad company to keep if you’re enduring deplorables. This is an impressive debut, and we can only hope that Ms. Sweeney doesn’t follow in Beatrice’s footsteps when penning her next one.

Rob Weir

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