By Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
The word “dysfunctional” has been overused in reviews about the fictional Plumb family of this wryly amusing tale. Would that word describe Jane Austen’s Bennet family? No. I think humanly flawed would be a more apt description. Not that this book rivals Austen’s in any way. But this story is a contemporary American take on the British comedy of manners. Or what happens when members of an upper middle-class family aspire to careers that offer artistic fulfillment but little steady income – all in the expectation that an inheritance will take care of their financial needs.
The Nest is the nickname given to the trust fund that the four Plumb siblings will receive when the youngest of them, Melody, turns forty. That’s a few months away when the book begins, but the oldest sibling, Leo, a man-child at forty-six, has involved himself in an expensive divorce precipitated when he left a wedding with a waitress and caused a car crash.
As in the classic British melodrama, the financial needs of the younger siblings are ignored as the nest egg is drained because of the misdeeds of the eldest.
Not that the Great Recession helped. Leo’s sisters and brother are mired in mortgage payments, equity lines of credit, looming college expenses for their offspring, and the fact that the fortune may have been diminished since 2007. This is great social satire with a large cast of characters, all satisfyingly drawn.
How ironic that this debut novel reportedly received a million-dollar advance, when several of its main characters work in the world of New York publishing, described as chaotic and financially unstable.
Like its characters, this book’s author might have toiled for years in obscurity, all in the hopes of a fortune that might or might not happen.
Nope. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney was a copywriter who completed an MFA when she was fifty years old, and only four years later published this book to great acclaim. In awe of this writer, I read interviews in which she revealed that she tried writing a novel in her twenties and because she failed at the attempt, put it off while life in the form of family and work got in the way. But there it was, percolating away until the right time came.
Kudos to Sweeney for giving us a delightful romp through her fictional world, and for waiting till she was ready to write it.
Saturday morning has always been my favorite time of the week. That’s because when I was a kid, this was my special time with my father. I’d accompany him on his errands, and one of our favorites was going to the Library. It was Dad who intervened when the librarian said I could not take books out from the general fiction area because I was only a child. I protested that I’d read most of the kids’ books and found the grown up books more interesting. Note that I don’t say “adult” books because that has a different meaning in today’s culture, and besides, our municipal library’s selection was on the tame side. These memories surfaced this week because National Library Week occurs April 9-15. April is School Library Month, and the 12th of April celebrates National Library Workers and National Bookmobile Day. Finally, April 23rd, the day of Shakespeare’s birth in 1564 and his death in 1616 was chosen in 1995 to be UNESCO’s World Book and Copyright Day. It’s a month to celebrate writers and readers everywhere. In his wonderful book, The View from the Cheap Seats, the British writer Neil Gaiman describes how he spent his school vacations at the local library. His parents dropped him off on their way to work and he happily spent his days in the children’s section, working through the card catalogue. Neil Gaiman, one of my very favorite authors, now has rock-star status with his fans. This week he’s doing a multi-city book tour throughout the United States. I was thrilled to go to his packed-out presentation Saturday night. Every one of the 1,600 seats was filled, there were calls of “we love you!” from the audience, and the line to purchase his books after his talk snaked out into the parking lot. Gaiman read from his latest book, Norse Mythology. His genius is to make the fantastic believable. His empathy for his characters, his humor, and his gorgeous cadences make his work spell-binding. This is a writer who clearly became intoxicated with the English language through deep immersion in children’s literature. That’s what libraries do for children. For all of us. And they’re free.