I made the mistake of reading The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney as I was finishing season two of Arrested Development, wanting some more of my gossip-driven guilty pleasure. After all, Tolstoy says, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The Nest is the unhappy story of the unhappy Plumb family. When the Plumb father died, he invested money into what was supposed to be a modest nest egg for his four children once they reached adulthood, which exploded into a huge fund each of the siblings used as a safety net for unwise financial decisions. But when Leo, the eldest child, gets into a car accident while running off with nineteen year old caterer, the Nest is depleted to keep the debacle quiet. The siblings suddenly have lost the safety net they’ve relied on and have to figure out a way to get Leo to come up with the money or lose the lives they worked to create. There’s also stories of coming-of-age, life as an amputee, literary communities, motherhood, and New York City high life, as the story is told from various perspectives, in and out of the Plumb family. As if the family drama wasn’t enough, there’s even a lost 9-11 artifact sub-plot, but it feels disjointed from the rest of the book (as in it could have been removed from the novel and the main plot would be completely intact).
This isn’t to say I don’t love juicy gossip novels with multiple plots; I just prefer them well-done. What I enjoyed most about Arrested Development was its basis in humor rather than drama. The dysfunctional family, selfish sibling dynamics, and general miscommunication and mischief is served up with comedic effect rather than soap opera hysterics, which is what I feel like this novel relies on.
One of the drawbacks to the novel is the multiple perspectives. Each chapter switches from the various Plumb perspectives, including a handful of other side characters. There are only a handful of books I can remember that manage the multiple POV device well. I find that more skilled writers are able to pick a character (or maybe two) and use the limited perspectives well. Usually the limited perspective means that as a reader, I learn more intimate details about the character by seeing the world through their eyes for an extended period of time.
Also, another weakness of the book is that because the novel takes so much time with a range of characters, I never really feel close to any of them. Instead, it feels like the author relies on the characters identifying their own weaknesses, which lessens the emotional impact than perhaps a more well-crafted moment where a reader observes a moment of vulnerability. There are few redeeming qualities to the Plumb siblings who, despite their father’s intent, have become entitled and dependent on the Nest, but try to absolve themselves of any blame. The chapters present different looks into each of the Plumb’s lives, but it gets boring when each sibling spends their time scheming, mourning the lack of money, spending money they don’t have, and justifying their actions to the readers by blaming someone else. It’s a juicy gossip book that’s less intoxicating and more eye-roll-inducing. One character I felt like I personally was supposed to click with (Bea, the washed-up writer part of the “Glitterary” community of NYC) never gave me much reason to care about her struggles. She was the least financially screwed, but I never found motivation to root for her. Really, I felt like the emphasis of the book was on the gossipy family drama, rather than the craft behind unfolding tangled narrative threads.
I’ve heard The Nest can be divisive. What did you think? Was I too harsh? What are other great books that feature dysfunctional families? What’s the best book you’ve read that featured multiples points of view? Let me know in the comments!