Saturday, March 26, 2016

Book Review: "The Nest" by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

What is it about family dysfunction that makes it so upsetting and unappealing to experience, yet so compelling to read about?

Leo, Beatrice, Jack, and Melody Plumb are four siblings whose relationships with each other are, to put it mildly, strained and complex. They've spent much of their adult lives waiting for one pivotal moment: the day the youngest, Melody, turns 40, so they can take possession of "The Nest," a joint trust fund their father set up when they were younger. Melody and Jack, in particular, are relying upon their share of "The Nest" to end their financial struggles and help them move their lives in the direction they are hoping.

There's one challenge to this, however. Leo, the oldest, the flame to his siblings' moths, found himself in a bit of trouble a few months earlier. Trouble which caused a car accident that injured a 19-year-old waitress, who was not his wife. Trouble which sent him to rehab. And trouble which has put "The Nest" in danger just months before Melody's 40th birthday. The Plumb siblings are apoplectic at the thought they might not get the financial support they were counting on, and cannot believe that once again, Leo has let them down.

Leo promises to make good on the money, and asks for a few months to put together a plan. It isn't long before old resentments come to the surface again, while each of them has to deal with their own crises and the secrets each of them have tried to hide. Melody, the overprotective mother of twin teenage girls, has been counting on the money to send both girls to prominent colleges, as well as bail her family out of their financial woes. Jack, whose antiques shop has been struggling, has gotten himself into more debt, unbeknownst to his husband, which leads him to make even more foolish decisions. And Bea, once a successful writer with some promise, can't seem to get her long-awaited novel written.

As they wait for Leo to share his plans and right all of their lives, Leo is struggling with doing the same for himself. For a person who has always led a bit of a charmed life, watching people buy his ideas and fall in behind him, suddenly he finds himself at emotional and financial odds. And while he wants to help his siblings, he also wants to put his whole life behind him and start over, no matter who might get caught in the crossfire.

It's hard to believe that The Nest is Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's debut novel, because it's written with tremendous self-assurance. These are fairly unappealing characters but Sweeney keeps them interesting even as they irritate you, even as you can't believe how horrible they are to each other and those they supposedly care about. And Leo is the worst of them all (although not by much).

I thought this book was really good, but in my opinion, what kept it from being great was that Sweeney added a few somewhat-related sub-plots that seemed unnecessary, and which distracted from the strength of the story at the book's core. When the book switched to the story of the waitress who was involved in Leo's accident, or a neighbor of Bea's former editor, I didn't feel as if these storylines added to the book in any way, and I became a bit frustrated.

But in the end, these are minor irritations. Most of us will never have concerns relative to when we're getting access to our trust fund, which may be why it's fun to live vicariously through this spoiled family. But even as the dysfunction and drama ratchets up, Sweeney never lets go of her characters' hearts, even if they're hard to find through all of their bad behavior.

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