The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney (2016)


I have to admit that before I read The Nest, I judged this book by its cover (or at least it’s book jacket summary), assumed that it would be another overly melodramatic story of a rich family terrible at making good decisions. After finishing the book, I have to say that while it is melodramatic story of a rich family terrible at making good decisions it is also as well written, compelling and empathetic book, and I loved it anyway.

The story moves back and forth through the past and present lives (and points of view) of the Plumb family — siblings Leo, Jack, Melody, and Beatrice; their mother, their spouses, and their children and friends — as they struggle to find happiness and peace of mind; two things in short supply in the cutthroat world of the rich New Yorkers. Although they are adults, the siblings are presented to us as largely petulant children who want nothing to do with each other except when it comes to the money they are set to inherit from their family trust — “The Nest” — in the coming years. When the most selfish and self-destructive sibling, Leo, causes a terrible accident that nearly destroys the life of a young woman and ends his marriage, the Nest is emptied to pay to fix his mistakes and hide him from legal culpability.

Leo’s remaining siblings are stunned that their brother’s illegal and immoral actions are being swept under the rug, but even more outrageous is that their fortune has been sacrificed for their feckless brother. Hidden under their outrage is their crippling fear: the siblings have long lived their live well beyond their means, waiting for that magical day when their financial sins will be washed clean by the money in the Nest.

Balancing out these spend-thrift main characters are a cast of satellite characters who urge caution and thriftiness: the Plumb’s spouses, children, lovers, and colleagues who all stand in contrast to the selfish, self-absorbed Plumb’s. As the story proceeds, it becomes glaringly obvious that money does not buy happiness nor security. It is one of these characters, Stephanie one of Leo’s lovers, who holds the group together and reestablishing the semblance of a family from the wreckage Leo has left behind. In addition to displaying wisdom, caution, and scruples, Stephanie also becomes one of only a few characters who thinks of others. She reaches out to help improve the lives of people injured by the Plumb’s…something none of them think to do.

The story’s characters are largely unlikable but they are redeemable, and that makes it worth the time it takes to hear their story, all the way through, before judging them hopeless.  What their journey highlights in such dramatic fashion is the extent to which being rich — and growing up around only wealthy people, living in a city that worships wealth and living with the prospect of greater future wealth (via an inheritance) — causes the characters to become psychologically disturbed. They suffer from such severe cases of affluenza that they waste huge sums of money and justify their spending with the knowledge that “there is always more where that came from.” They spend their lives truly believing that having the exact right artwork or antiques, sending their kids to the most expensive private schools, will make all the difference. And it does, only not in the ways they anticipate…it means that when the money runs out, their houses of cards completely collapse and every single part of their lives must change.

Their inheritance evaporates and panic ensues. They siblings are practically crippled when faced with making good economic decisions: they purchase ridiculously expensive items on credit; agree to ponzi schemes and adjustable rate mortgages without ever considering the risk; they justify spending to “look the part” and to disguise their failing good fortune. Even worse, they begin to lie to the their loved ones, conceals expenses, sabotage recovery efforts…they become like children who are willing to destroy all the fun if they cannot be a part.

The resulting story is one of the tortoise and the hare, the characters who plan, work, and save weather the storm of economic downturn and uncertainty; and those who spend (and spend and spend) end up losing everything, or almost everything. But despite their fall from grace, the family finds something even more valuable: each other and a life of support, love, and friendship that all the money of their youth concealed from them.