In ‘The Nest,’ a family’s inheritance dries up

The Nest. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. Ecco. 353 pages. $26.99.
The Nest. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. Ecco. 353 pages. $26.99.

More than one life has been ruined by an inheritance that vaporized before heirs could cash in. Late-blooming author Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney examines the doomed expectations of the snobbish Plumb family in this light-hearted novel of manners.

The Nest centers on four siblings destined to inherit a fortune when the youngest of them turns 40. As soon as they celebrate self-centered, aggressively upwardly mobile Melody’s birthday, they expect to cash in.

Naturally, there’s a hitch. The culprit in this caper is ambitious, philandering Leo, the middle-aged big brother entrusted with the fund he and his siblings call “the nest.” Naturally, there is trouble, and in the aftermath of the disaster, he’ll systematically defeather that nest.

With a sharp eye for social and class-conscious detail, Sweeney writes well about such encounters as the lavish society wedding where everything goes wrong. But even Leo doesn’t know how wrong everything will be. After a few too many drinks and a bump or two of cocaine, he takes off with a lovely cater-waiter Matilda. Bingo, car crash.

This brief prologue sets the stage. Leo will spend the rest of the novel — and most of his siblings’ money — settling with Matilda, who was maimed in the wreck.

More than a year later, the family meets over drinks for what they think will be the reckoning, but Leo is elusive at best. Freshly divorced from his rich wife and just out of rehab, he has other things on his mind.

The rest of the family has issues, too. Uptight brother Jack, who deals in antiques, is in over his head, building up debt after debt he expects to pay off as soon as he collects his share, including a second mortgage he took without telling his lawyer husband.

A promising young writer more than 20 years ago, sister Bridget is wallowing in self pity because, in spite of fantastic reviews for her short story collection, she can’t seem to produce the brilliant novel her agent expects. The least sympathetic of the characters, she’s a tiresome cliché.

Then there’s Melody, the youngest, whose unrealistic social expectations drive her husband and her twin daughters places they don’t want to go. Her extravagant renovations tax the family’s budget, and she wants more. She sends the girls to high-end SAT classes she hopes will get them into Ivy League colleges at a cost of roughly $60,000 a year per twin.

Oh, yes, the Plumb heirs tell themselves. Everything will be put right as soon as they can collect their share of the millions.

The most interesting characters are not the greedy siblings — although their machinations and social confrontations are amusing — but Melody’s twin daughters, Nora and Louisa, who ditch those SAT classes to hang out with rebellious Simone. Sweeney is best at drawing the agony and ecstasy of being 17, especially when Nora falls in love with Simone. Unlike her portrayal of the relationship between Jack and his punctilious husband, the kids’ story springs to life, as do Melody’s shallow ambitions.

Less successful are the author’s attempts to broaden the scope of her first novel with a 9/11 subplot and a closer look at Matilda’s life: the injury, the prosthesis she rejects, the war veteran who urges her on by demonstrating his prosthetic arm. Even so, The Nest is swift and entertaining and would be a natural fit for film or TV.

Perhaps most interesting is this detail about the author herself. The Nest grew out of a short story she wrote while earning her MFA at Bennington College at age 50. Some years and a seven-figure deal later, garlanded with blurbs by Amy Poehler and Elizabeth Gilbert, it launches a promising career.

Kit Reed is a writer in Connecticut.