As I have been discovering lately, sometimes it takes people longer than expected to grow up. And sometimes, they never do. And what is growing up, anyway? Behaving in culturally, socially appropriate ways? Engaging in a slew of actions that coincides with someone else’s wishes and tastes?
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney reminds us in her debut novel The Nest that we are nobody’s mirror. Her character Simone explains matter-of-factly, smugly even; “Everyone’s always on the hunt for a mirror. It’s basic psychology. You want to see yourself reflected in others. Others—your sister, your parents—they want to look at you and see themselves. They want you to be a flattering reflection of them—and vice-versa. It’s normal. I suppose it’s really normal if you’re a twin. But being somebody else’s mirror? That is not your job.”
And it isn’t.
The Nest is a sprawling, Nora Ephron-esque peek into the story of four waspy New York siblings grasping furiously at a promised inheritance, with brief glimpses into the lives of others they interact with. Leo, the oldest brother, is the quintessential charmer, an Alfie, with superb taste and a gracefully aging body. Beatrice is in her forties, a once-popular author who has faded from the fickle New York literary scene. Jack is a gay, married antique store proprietor. The youngest, Melody, is struggling to define herself by her beautifully restored brownstone and her wonderful twin daughters, who she hopes will attend well-regarded private universities.
All of the Plumb siblings’ hopes and dreams hinge around “the nest”, which is a large sum of money that their father squirreled away for them. The idea is that when the youngest, Melody, is of age, “the nest” will be theirs to spend or save how they will.
Sweeney beautifully echoes Dickens’ judicial farce in Bleak House, in which the character Richard Carstone pins all of his hopes, even his well-being, on the case Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which is also concerned with an inheritance and contested wills. In the same way, the Plumb family builds their future around the assumption that “the nest” will be safe, untouched, and willed to them in a timely manner.
But plans go awry sometimes. And here, Sweeney’s kernel of truth comes out; we often don’t need that which we depend on. There are lovely little microcosms to reflect this throughout the book; Bea doesn’t truly need Leo’s approval, Melody doesn’t actually need her house, the twins don’t strictly need ivy-league educations, Jack doesn’t necessarily need his marriage, Vinnie can find love, happiness, and yes, pleasure, without an operational hand.
At times, I found the cast difficult to identify with; they are an admirably self-destructive group. But I finished the book with a sense of triumph and an intense desire to discuss it, which I count as a good sign.
Sweeney is intellectual, compassionate, and shrewd, with a talent for crafting honest stories with believable characters. Her short-story-within-the-novel about Melody’s grade school birthday party is juicy, funny, and horrible at the same time; it’s all there.
I’m looking forward to more from this promising author. A screenplay, mayhaps?