Lisa Whiteman / Ecco / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic
The Nest by Cynthia D. Sweeney Ecco Press

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s agent sent her novel to publishers the Monday after Thanksgiving. As readers who had likely spent long weekends with their own dysfunctional families, he told her, they would be especially receptive to her book’s dysfunctional Plumb clan. The plan worked, and the 55-year-old’s debut landed a seven-figure advance. The Nest, Ecco was plainly betting, will have a certain mirror-like appeal not just within the literary precincts of New York that Sweeney satirizes, but also among readers well beyond them. The Plumb family dynamic, old-fashioned though it may sound, is astutely timed for our stagnant, post-recession age: The siblings in Sweeney’s foreground are busy making a mess of an inheritance they’ve long been fantasizing about.

In a prologue made for the screen (champagne, hand job, speeding Porsche), the drug-addled, sex-driven Leo Plumb stars as a predatory Prince Charming to a too-trusting, too-young Cinderella, Matilda Rodriguez, a waitress at the evening’s fancy Long Island wedding. Instead of a glass slipper, the events of the night leave her with an amputated foot and a pile of hush money. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Leo also faces an expensive divorce. To pay out the enormous sums he owes Matilda and his ex-wife, Leo draws down the reserves of a shared trust fund set up by his late father, Leonard, and administered by their distant mother, who will disburse it when the youngest Plumb child turns 40. His siblings, Jack, Bea, and Melody (who is nearing 40), are, to put it mildly, dismayed.

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.

It turns out that Sweeney is more of a romantic than she perhaps realizes. That becomes clear in her subplots, which feature New Yorkers on the lower end of the economic spectrum whose lives the often-oblivious Plumbs disrupt. Making room for the perspective of the city’s other half is important, given the Plumb siblings’ self-involvement. (Leo, his conscience cleansed by the knowledge that he’s made Matilda a millionaire, has “buried her deep, deep in a tiny box in some remote corner of his brain.”) But the artificial neatness of the downstairs storylines dilutes Sweeney’s irony. When these minor, and morally superior, characters end up amply rewarded with authorial acts of kismet—if not for the accident, Matilda would never have met her fellow-amputee love interest in rehab—the effect feels more like absolution for the Plumbs than like a true critique of their ways. Sweeney gets to cluck at the fumbling siblings without giving them too stinging a slap on the wrist.

The Plumbs are ridiculous, and it’s fun to pass judgment and worry on their behalf as they nervously eye their bank accounts and learn to live with one another as adults. But Sweeney can’t quite seem to decide what she wants us to take away from their foibles. Is some level of entitlement excusable, or even endearing, as long as we can take a step back and see it for what it is? (What might such a step back look like?) Are we to lament, as Leo does, that New York has “completely lost its edge,” or should we be relieved? When all is said and done, is it money that matters, or family? Ultimately, Sweeney wants to have it all ways. With some money, tempered ambitions, hard work, strengthened relationships, and, yes, a little grand-finale romance, the Plumbs can have their cupcakes and eat them too.

That’s a luxury not everyone gets to enjoy these days. But The Nest shies away from facing squarely the greater ironies of a city in which it is all too clear that a lot depends on where on the economic spectrum you start out, and on luck that can often seem skewed. “Part of the city’s magical beastliness,” the essayist Meghan Daum has written, “is the fact that you can show up with the best of intentions, do what’s considered to be all the right things, actually achieve some measure of success, and still find yourself caught inside a financial emergency.” Without some improbable, romantic twists of fate, though, that story wouldn’t make a very good novel.

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