Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s debut novel gives readers the Plumb family: an odd collection of seemingly “normal” adult siblings who have ventured off on different paths in their lives, but are still bound together by the promise of a significant amount of money (“The Nest”) that is to be distributed among them when the youngest turns 40.
D’Aprix Sweeney, who began writing in earnest at the age of 50, competently explores the relationships, comic battles, skirmishes, surrenders and reconciliations of the Plumb family, in and around New York City. It’s a promising start for this writer, though I felt some characters got short shrift.
It begins with a car accident. Leo Plumb, eldest of the four siblings, speeds away from a wedding reception with a young waitress and, because his mind is (ahem) not on the road, the joy ride ends with a devastating crash.
From this rather clichéd prologue, the story jumps ahead a few months to when the Plumbs decide to meet with Leo (now freshly released from rehab) to discuss the state of the nest. It seems their normally disengaged mother has nearly drained the fund to settle up with the waitress and her family. Needless to say, brother Jack and sisters Beatrice and Melody want answers. Does Leo plan on paying them back? They all seem to be in some sort of financial crisis and were counting on the nest to get them through.
In the following chapters, we learn more about the Plumbs discover that maybe they are more like us than we care to realize.
Jack, an antiques dealer, seems to be the most desperate of the siblings, constantly hounding Leo for answers. He ends up crossing paths with a 9/11 widower and trying to sell a piece of art on the black market to make money.
Beatrice, a once-famous writer, is trying to find something — anything — to jump-start her lagging career. She floats through life, going to literary gatherings and lunches, trying to make sense of it all but mostly coming up empty.
Melody, mother of twin teenage girls, is trying her best to keep her family on track and keep up appearances in their small commuter town. Can they keep up the payments on their suburban home? Can they afford to send the twins to a decent college?
Many of the New York settings feel alive and vibrant. Sometimes the descriptions are a bit flowery (as with the place settings for a fancy birthday party), but at other times D’Aprix Sweeney captures perfectly a fleeting sense of time and place, such as in the touching epilogue, set at a completely different kind of birthday party.
She successfully weaves the siblings’ stories together and creates layered, believable female characters (although a couple of spot-on, character-enhancing flashbacks came a little too late in the story for me). In the end, the women get more of the novel’s happy endings, while the men’s stories are smothered in clichés and drift away.
The Plumb family may or may not be your favorite shot of comic family dysfunction. But it leaves me eager to see what comes next from this late-blooming author.