They have, you see, let anticipation get the better of them. Market forces and the shrewd management of a second cousin charged with overseeing the fund—which Leonard Plumb had, once upon a time, conceived of as “nothing so vast as to be truly significant”—have conspired to inflate “The Nest,” as the siblings refer to it, “to numbers beyond their wildest dreams.” And there lies the rub: The now-truly-significant resources they’d begun to count on for children’s tuition and home payments, business and personal solvency, is, just like that, on the brink of disappearing. Leo promises his finger-pointing siblings he’ll find a way to pay them back and, through rotating third-person perspectives, a romp of light-hearted social mockery ensues.
It’s worth pausing for a moment on the larger premise of Sweeney’s plot. The Plumbs, like so many Americans—with or without expectations of financial inheritance—find themselves in a world in which wealth is at best unpredictable and at worst illusory. Money taunts them by swelling when it’s out of reach and then disappearing right before they counted on enjoying its bounty. All the while, the things they intend to do with their money become more and more expensive. Early 21st-century New York makes an ideal backdrop for a gentle parody of the sort of self-pity such travails inspire among a relatively privileged set.
Sweeney, who wrote The Nest in L.A. after decades as a copywriter in New York, is adept at setting the scene, putting the players in place, and knowing when to step back. What her voice lacks in distinctiveness, it makes up for in confidence and direction, as she capitalizes on the nostalgic yearnings inspired by a city with already-astronomical, steadily rising rents—yearnings felt especially acutely among its more creative careerists, subject to fiscal ups-and-downs.
Sweeney’s urban portrait turns on real estate, the nest that everybody can gloat over, or resent. A literary agent, an old friend of Leo and Bea Plumb’s, bought her townhouse in Brooklyn at the end of the Giuliani era, “only weeks after 9/11 during what would turn out to be the tiniest of real-estate dips.” And who wouldn’t grudgingly respect the editor—Bea’s boss and would-be lover—who bought an entire building “before the Dumbo section of Brooklyn became DUMBO” because it “reminded him of Soho back when Soho had energy and grit”? Meanwhile, Jack Plumb, an antiques dealer who failed to mount “the real estate carousel at the right time,” feels New York “mocking him and his financial woes” at every turn. And poor Melody, in rejecting the “grime and cacophony” of city life, which she fears will corrupt her daughters, has burdened herself with a giant mortgage in a quaint upstate town. The city becomes a symbol of innocence lost.
* * *
Last fall saw the publication of another first novel about New York, also preceded by news of a hefty advance for its author. Though Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire is far longer, and has a very different flavor, it contains many of the same ingredients—and some of the same sour notes that begin to creep into The Nest. The intergenerational inheritance drama, the awesome power of New York real estate, and the rueful nostalgia are set, in that novel, primarily in the seedy ’70s, before Wall Street power or 9/11 trauma-and-recovery steered the city in its present direction. Hallberg, as Louis Menand wrote in The New Yorker, is a romantic; his novel is almost entirely devoid of satire.