Cynthia D’Arprix Sweeney’s debut is one of those novels that lots of people have been jumping up and down about, eagerly anticipating its publication: I’ve been one of them. Usually that kind of thing makes me put on my sceptical hat but with the promise of a dysfunctional family – a favourite literary trope which may say a lot about families – a New York backdrop and some well-aimed barbs at the better-off it sounded right up my alley and I’m delighted to say it delivers. The Plumbs, who’ve been counting on a windfall from the fund their father set up for them many years ago, are everything you could wish for in the dysfunctional stakes.
Leonard Plumb’s family frittered away what fortune they had. A proud self-made man, he decided that his own children would suffer neither his fate nor indulge in his family’s profligacy, setting up a modest fund nicknamed the Nest, which will pay out on his youngest child’s fortieth birthday. It’s supposed to be a top-up, a little something to draw on in middle age, but the growth of the fund has far exceeded Leonard’s wildest dreams. It has become exactly what he didn’t want for his children: a source of expectation. What Jack, Bea and Melody have not counted on is the plundering of their treasured Nest by their mother to get their eldest brother Leo out of trouble. Drunk and coked-up, Leo has crashed head on with an SUV while in compromising circumstances with a waitress, his mind taken off the road somewhat. Three months after the event, the three aggrieved siblings have arranged to meet Leo, fresh out of rehab. All are financially compromised: Jack’s taken out a loan against the summer-house he shares with his partner to shore up his failing antiques shop; Bea’s writing career has stalled and her advance is all but spent; Melody’s concern for appearances has landed her with a massive mortgage and college fees for her sixteen-year-old twins are looming on the horizon. Leo is late, as ever, but when he arrives he assures them he will repay the money. Sweeney’s novel follows these four over the three months until Melody’s fortieth, the longed for payout day.
The strength of The Nest lies in Sweeney’s characterisation. She introduces us to the Plumbs with a set-piece meeting, filling in their background as each prepares with a drink in a bar they know none of the others frequents. The story unfolds from the point of view of each member of the family, rounding them out nicely. Sweeney smartly avoids caricature, underpinning her novel with a gentle humour which makes it all the more engaging: these aren’t bad people, just a little too greedy for their own – and others’ – good. The novel is polished off with a thoroughly satisfying epilogue, neatly tying up any loose ends. It’s not challenging – no literary fireworks, nothing revolutionary – just a well-turned out, entertaining and absorbing piece of fiction that will keep you interested for all of its 400+ pages while quietly delivering a serious message about money and expectations. More please!