All the way back in the fall, I knew when The Nest, the debut novel by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, was going to be released. March 22, 2016. The media was a’buzzin about this domestic drama, and even my boss at Kirkus Reviews was raving about it on Austin’s public radio in the fall. Not long after, Publisher’s Weekly devoted a whole newsletter to promoting the novel. I read about the novel in Wall Street Journal in late November and learned how Sweeney had received a multi-million dollar advance. So I pre-ordered The Nest on autopilot, a blind one-click affair. (Hey, I’m fond of reading about siblings in literature.)
In mid-March, the anticipation built with each passing week. Finally, I waited for the mailman to stop by on the 22nd and tore open the packaging. The novel was a teal green/robin’s egg blue hybrid with a family crest-inspired cover in raised, posh, copper lettering.
And so I read it. And it was…pretty good! I would absolutely recommend it. Here’s why.
In The Nest, readers take an immersive look inside the Plumb family and the four siblings, all of whom have gone their separate ways and don’t really stay in touch. Leo, the oldest, is a sell-out new media tycoon and stunted artist. Jack, an antiques dealer, is seemingly-happy in his marriage to his husband. Beatrice (Bea) writes for a living and was seen as a promising young writer. And Melody, the youngest, is a devoted mother to twin girls who will soon enter college. All four children are set to receive The Nest—the huge trust fund established by their now-deceased father—when Melody turns 40. She is 39 when the novel begins in early fall and will turn 40 in February.
In the opening pages of the novel, Leo gets in a car accident because a young waitress at a cousin’s wedding gives him a blow job and Leo, already hopped up on drugs and alcohol, loses control of the car. Leo is in serious medical trouble. To pay for his bills, the Plumb children’s mother all but empties the Nest.
Understandably, the children are outraged. Each of them has money problems. Jack has an alarming amount of debt and is keeping it a secret from his husband. Bea is ordered to pay back her huge advance because time has gone by and she has yet to complete her novel, the second in a two-part book deal contract. Melody is anxious that she won’t be able to pay for college for her twin daughters. Meanwhile, Leo is keeping secrets of his own. He promises his siblings he’ll get them the money by Melody’s birthday in February, but is he just leading them on? As the months progress, the siblings find that the dire circumstances actually bind them together whereas the nest drove them apart. Will any good come of the uncertainty of the nest’s future? Or will this divide them more than ever?
The Nest landed Sweeney a seven-figure advance, and even though that sounds absurd, I think she earned it. Let’s talk about the good and the bad. First the weaker areas.
Sweeney’s novel is not perfect. In particular, The Nest is extremely ambitious, reaching high, high, high to incorporate themes about economics, the war on terror, class divisions, new media, startups, creativity, authenticity, and sexuality. And I’m sure there are five more at least. When it works, it really works, and you marvel at how Sweeney weaves it all together. When the metaphor or theme seems like a reach, it’s almost embarrassing to see how awkward it is when it just doesn’t fit. Also, the novel is in large ways a satire, but some of the things Sweeney chooses to satirize seem petty and dated. Is the dig about a trend for gluten-free cupcakes going to stand the test of time? And is that really something to go after? Fortunately, Sweeney’s satire is usually on point rather than petty and snarky. Last, in its weaker moments, The Nest seems to rely on caricatures, especially of working class characters and immigrant characters. Those segments can be hard to read, and it doesn’t seem like the character rings hollow, propped up on details that create a stereotype.
But despite its flaws, The Nest is the kind of novel to celebrate, one that does not come along every week, and that’s why I understand the huge advance. The Nest was the kind of novel I want to write, one that you look forward to reading when you’re doing something else. It bridges highbrow and middlebrow because the writing style is both witty and literary but still accessible and easy to read. The novelist who The Nest reminded me the most of was Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Freedom, and you know how I feel about Jonathan Franzen.
I say this because it is a domestic drama that also tackles larger issues and makes a genuinely significant social commentary. Even though the novel is set in the early 2010s, it is timeless in a way, as it mixes perennial themes and universal family drama with more current issues, like the concept of new media empires.
In my library science graduate program reader’s advisory class, we dissected novels in terms of their “appeal factors,” meaning what was a draw: setting, characters, language, and plot. For The Nest, it is a character-driven novel, and the Plumb siblings and those around them were so fully realized that you’d think they could step off the page. The novel really isn’t even that long, about 360 pages or so, but Sweeney is a master at conveying characterization from inference and tiny details in economic prose. In my writing classes, we learn about the difference between showing and telling. Sweeney shows instead of tells. Instead of writing, “Jack was growing increasingly desperate to have money so much so that he’d do anything,” she’d show it through his action and dialogue. The novel works because these characters, even though some of them are selfish, spoiled, naive, and navel-gazing, are as real as your best friend or your own brother or sister. They are flawed, even if their flaws are of their own making, and that makes them real, human, not characters in a book. It reminds me an awful lot of The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson’s Academy-Award winning film about siblings reunited after being apart for many years.
So I urge you to read The Nest. It lives up to the hype. It is first, an entertaining novel, a literary fiction novel that you want to turn the pages faster and faster. Second, its characters are memorable and polarizing–in the spring it seemed like all my colleagues were reading The Nest and we all wanted to dish about Leo, Bea, Jack, and Melody. And last, because The Nest is ambitious and reaches so high that in its best moments you think, this is the definition of the Great American Novel, one written by a talented female writer, as opposed to a literary boy. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s memorable debut is a promising start of what’s to come in her writing career. I eagerly await her next novel.
Rating: 4/5 stars