Mark Twain once said that the lack of money is the root of all evil. This maxim certainly holds true for the Plumb siblings of New York, who stand to inherit a large sum once their youngest sister turns 40.
Despite their comfortable upbringing, the promise of unearned wealth has transformed the two younger Plumbs into crazed, desperate liars. Melody, a stay-at-home mother, has convinced her husband to buy a too-expensive house in a tony suburban village. In her spare time, while not racking up debt on a secret credit card, she tours colleges with her twin teenage daughters, promising them a future free of student loans. Jack, an antiques dealer, pumps inordinate amounts of cash into his faltering business. To do so, he has been borrowing against his summer home without telling his long-suffering husband that he’s put their retirement plans at risk.
Beatrice and Leo, described as the more attractive versions of their younger sibs, have fared better. Both lead the kinds of lives rarely seen among those without generous cushions. Beatrice, a blocked writer and former lit-world ingénue, works for peanuts at a magazine, a pursuit enabled by a rent-free existence in the Manhattan apartment of a deceased lover. Leo, once a promising editor, launched a magazine that started out like Spy and devolved into Gawker, sold it for a tidy sum, and lives a Jay McInerney-esque jet plane and cocaine lifestyle.
The plot kicks off when an intoxicated Leo inadvertently causes a teenage Latina waitress to be maimed during a seduction ploy, and the Plumb’s appearance-minded mother drains her children’s trust fund to pay for rehab and hush money. Suddenly, the Plumb siblings are left high and dry just before they’re about to cash in.
Will Leo pay his siblings back or learn to think of anyone but himself? To what depths will Jack and Melody sink to maintain their lies? Will Beatrice ever get over the death of her boyfriend and fulfill her youthful promise? Will readers without a vested interest in the peccadillos of affluent white people give a toss?
“The Nest,” which drew a seven-figure advance, is being promoted as a wickedly funny look at how potential wealth can turn reasonable people into debased fools. Indeed, first-time novelist Cynthia D’Aprix-Sweeney paints in the broad strokes of a satirist and injects enough inanity to make “The Nest” a plausible sendup of the chattering classes. However, she shows her characters far more affection than scorn, signaling to the reader that she should try to relate to, or even feel tenderness for, these grasping boobs.
Easier said than done. Amid the gentle humor, “The Nest” seems to preach that the spending habits of the upper-middle class hold the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Loving depictions of tastefully appointed Brooklyn abodes, purchased early in the borough’s march toward becoming an urbane Disneyland, display the novel’s almost fetishistic regard for smart gentrifiers who buy at just the right time. Two of the book’s most generously written characters are landlords.
Meanwhile, the comparatively dire problems of the book’s working-class characters — the wounded waitress, a widowed 9-11 rescuer, and a disabled Italian-American pizza man, all beneficent salt-of-the-earth types — exist solely to provide a somber counterpoint to the frivolous grievances of the Plumbs. God help the working-class character who reaches above her station. A scene with a loud-mouthed writer with “new impressive breasts’’ and an ethnic maiden name who married up provides the book with a moment of bona-fide class hatred.
By the novel’s end, each Plumb has learned the lessons necessary for his or her journey toward wholeness, a move that transforms the book from light satire to a sentimental chronicle of personal growth. A wholly ungenerous reading of “The Nest” might see it as a myopic plea for a moral universe in which the greatest rewards come to the creative, attractive, and well heeled — and to good-hearted workers who know their place. A more generous one might peg “The Nest” as a flawed ode to the virtues of middle-class family values, a view perhaps most accessible to those who see themselves in it.
By Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Ecco, 353 pp., $26.99
Eugenia Williamson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org