In “Good Company,” Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s follow-up to her best-selling “The Nest,” she deftly and empathetically charts the nuanced rhythms of friendships, particularly those that, under certain circumstances, take on the role of a close-knit family circle.
Flora and Julian have weathered the challenges of acting careers in New York: they’ve survived the often-fruitless parade of auditions, and, with friends, they’ve built Good Company, a Manhattan-based community-theater group. As they became parents to their daughter Ruby, Flora took on more voice-over work — banks, burgers, household cleaners, toilet paper — and now she’s landed a cool job voicing “Leona the saucy lioness” on an animated musical television series. Julian, too, is a TV series regular, playing a cop in 1970s New York City, a job that relocated the family from New York to Los Angeles several years earlier. Now, “for the first time in all their married lives, they both had desirable parts, season renewals, almost two months off without worrying what the rest of the year might bring in the way of work.”
Flora and Julian’s longtime best friends, Margot and David, are also in a good place — Margot’s in the 9th year of a successful run in a “Grey’s Anatomy”-like behemoth, and David runs a stroke clinic with his brother.
But the couples’ comfortable friendship shifts when, on the eve of Ruby’s high-school graduation, Flora goes rummaging around for a 13-year-old photograph that she wants to frame as a gift. The photo, taken at Good Company’s idyllic summertime satellite performance space in New York’s Hudson Valley — “where if a character said they were going for a swim, the actor playing that character would jump in the pond and swim” — is a cozy snap of the four friends with the then 5-year-old Ruby.
Well, Flora finds the photo all right, in a large file cabinet, “a compromise of early marriage between Julian’s near hoarderlike tendencies and Flora’s love of purging” — but that’s not all she discovers. In among the art projects, receipts, postcards, notebooks, pens, and other detritus, she also comes upon Julian’s original wedding ring, the one he told her he’d lost while swimming in the aforementioned pond, years ago.
Sweeney’s tale unspools smoothly as her characters’ relationships begin to unravel. The bittersweet competition between Margot and Flora for Ruby’s attention is a more innocent, manageable aspect of these interpersonal relationships; a years-long betrayal by way of omission of the truth hits closer to home for everyone involved.
As her characters ruminate over their past and future actions, Sweeney immerses us in the thespian worlds of New York and Los Angeles. The scenes set at Stoneham, Good Company’s rural theater, are especially well done, as are the details of Margot’s life as a Hollywood celebrity-slash-actress. In a particularly telling scene, Margot navigates an interview with a young, astute, and ever-so-curious journalist: Margot manipulates the situation with a light yet firm hand, ensuring that it doesn’t turn into an exchange that will ultimately “feed the bottomless pit that was entertainment journalism.” The exchange that Margot has with her publicist over selecting an appropriate “favorite” item to be highlighted in an article feels pretty spot-on, as do the lengths Margot goes to in order to maintain her hairstyle during filming: “If she was tired, she had to prop herself up with enough pillows so her hair could hang over the edge of her sofa. She’d cross her arms over her chest, like a corpse, and try to doze.”
Against the more forceful characters of Flora, Julian, and Margot, David and Ruby appear at first glance to serve as mere foils, but they quickly take on little dramas of their own. Post-graduation, Ruby gets increasingly irritated with her high-school boyfriend on their trip to Spain, and spends her time “[t]rying to summon her affection for him, which seemingly had expired the second she was handed her diploma.” Meanwhile, David, who experiences the most life-changing event of the group, holds a steadfast stance while all those around him are losing their heads. Though he met the others during an ill-fated performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Shakespeare in the Park, he’s the only non-thespian in the group, a heart doctor with heart and a pragmatic approach to life. “‘What’s it like?’” Julian asks David when they first meet, “‘to open someone’s chest and see a beating heart?’ David thought for a minute, took a sip of his beer. ‘It’s like opening up the hood of a car: you’re looking for the problem. Figuring out the repair.’”
Sweeney, a former copywriter, is terrific with incisive turns of phrase, whether it’s the girls at Ruby’s school, high-heeled for graduation and “clutching onto one another for balance, looking like agile fawns, their faces a blend of exhilaration and fear,” or a sharp, post-argument observation: “Last night had been bad, but he knew it was the amuse-bouche of rage.” And it’s in little asides such as these that this novel really shines: serendipitous party hook-ups, sourcing an organization’s name from a Chinese fortune cookie at the end of a bonding meal, even just a crowd of New Yorkers collectively admiring a display of strawberries that “taste like summer.”
Primarily a summer-set story itself, “Good Company” captures a finely edged tipping point where self-focus and real-life surprises collide. In Sweeney’s capable hands, the outcomes reveal her characters’ shared exuberance for life, as well as each one’s Achilles heel.
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.
By Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Ecco, 320 pages, $27.99