Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney did everything exactly as it should be done for her novel The Nest, and the result is an amateur first novel that reads like it grew out of a writer’s workshop. It isn’t bad. But it isn’t good, a two-star novel if ever there was one.
The “rules” of novel writing show through in the novel’s structure, and Sweeney’s prose sometimes belies the probable reach for a thesaurus (I know it sounds fancier, but “purview” ≠ “view,” and when your writing is usually conversational, the use of the 4th or 5th definition of a word stands out terribly: a “premeditated” pregnancy is technically correct, but…) There isn’t any innovation in the writing and, unless your own life dovetails with those of her selfish mid-forties New Yorker protagonists, you likely won’t find reason to care about them.
Unfortunately for Sweeney’s novel, good (or at least three-dimensional) characters are the only thing that could make this story not vapid.
The Nest is about four bickering, entitled, childish, petulant siblings who were promised a modest inheritance ($50,000 each – the “Nest”), which grew through (someone else’s) good management into $500,000 each and yet they whine about possibly getting only $50,000 (the original – and intentioned – sum) at the end of it.
The reason for the Nest dwindling back to its original sum is the legal settlement from eldest sibling Leo’s car accident, which payed off Matilda Rodriguez, victim-cum-amputee (never mind her own culpability in giving Leo the hand job while he was driving or in overlooking the fact that Leo was buzzed and yet still thinking riding with him was a fabulous idea.)
Leo screwed up, and he drained the Nest. The other Plumb children had stacked their expenses alongside the half-mil sum and now find themselves unable to relinquish certain hopes and dreams they’d wanted to pursue.
Sweeney could have made her first novel a reaming of Americans’ inability to live within their means, accompanied by the constant whine of First World Problems. It could have been a funny novel and a satiric powerhouse. Instead, Sweeney’s characters in The Nest are flat and given the superficial treatment. They’re larger than life in the way that caricatures are larger than life, and even the caricature artist can turn a good business – but for that the pen strokes have to be good.
The Nest does show in a cosmetic way our now all-too-common habit of living beyond our means, not because there’s any joy in it but because we’re forever trying to keep up with the Joneses. Sweeney, however, doesn’t have the acetic wit that Edith Wharton had, and what we’re left with is Melody Plumb, a pathetic character if viewed beside Wharton’s equally desperate, equally privileged, but much more sympathetic Lily Bart or Undine Spragg. Still, we know Melody is the type who shops at Banana Republic when what she can afford is Walmart and so she blanches at the prices – before sighing and inevitably handing over her card.
The other Plumbs are just as flimsy in character. Jack Plumb and his husband Walker, high off the excitement of sexual freedom, made their love exclusive in large part because of the risks involved during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Sweeney only glosses over this. There aren’t any fraught paragraphs about what it might have been like to be gay and in love when your friends are falling one by one and homophobia was even more pronounced than it is today. As with any of the characters in The Nest, there is no depth to their story.
Bea Plumb is a has-been writer trying to make a comeback. She’s also self-congratulatory. Other characters it seems Sweeney created just so that Bea could sound off or perform some silly feat of revenge: sure, if you’re in your 40s and have only negative gossip to share, then yes, you’re mean and immature – but stealing a plate of fancy cookies with an ornery look of “that’s right, bitch” (as Bea does) only puts you on the same level of immaturity and to the point where I just might have to look at the gossipers with a higher level of respect because at least they’re entertaining. The level of cope is off the charts.
Maybe had Sweeney pushed her Plumbs to ripen a bit over the course of her novel they’d be more enjoyable or at least more real. But instead The Nest is full of extraneous characters, some of whom seem included for the sake of diversity, however clichéd: the Italian owner of a pizza restaurant (who also happens to be an amputee with anger management issues); the homosexual thread that she carries out on both the male and female fronts; the fact that Matilda Rodriguez, victim of Leo’s car accident, is in the States illegally; the soapbox feminism she has Stephanie perform near the end of her pregnancy…the Plumb family gets ushered to the side to make room for these other people whose back stories have little to no bearing on the story and whose back stories, even as they’re included, are equally shallow. This is another reason why her novel reads like it came out of a workshop: character sketches, dumped into the finished product.
The perspective in The Nest is always shifting, even within the same paragraph, and while a multiple point of view story can be interesting it’s only confusing when its author can’t handle the complexity that its writing demands. The oddball details, too – the bits of information that Sweeney plops down as an aside every so often to explain away a problem that she wrote herself into – get forgotten until once more she brings them to the rescue – read as highly improbable, their purposes being to fix rather than to elucidate. Yet another reason for that writer’s workshop feeling.
After the character sketches, after the flat descriptions, after the impossible-made-possible little fixes there’s the ending. It’s tidy. It’s redemptive. It’s schmaltzy. It’s certainly quick: I guess deadline was fast approaching. It attempts to make a complete story arc for each of her characters (minor ones, too), but it’s too contrived and drips with forced optimism. Not every story needs to run as a closed circuit.
It’s clear from this first novel that Sweeney understands the rudiments of the novel if nothing else. After all, she wrote a good, believable baseline of a story for a couple of her characters (like Leo and Jack). The Nest is B-grade work, more eager than earnest, that shows the author has potential if she can dive down farther and dare to be a little less correct.
The Nest · Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Harper Collins, 2016 · 353 pages, paperback