Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Every family has its problems. But even among the most troubled, the Plumb family stands out as spectacularly dysfunctional. Years of simmering tensions finally reach a breaking point on an unseasonably cold afternoon in New York City as Melody, Beatrice, and Jack Plumb gather to confront their charismatic and reckless older brother, Leo, freshly released from rehab. Months earlier, an inebriated Leo got behind the wheel of a car with a nineteen-year-old waitress as his passenger. The ensuing accident has endangered the Plumbs joint trust fund, “The Nest,” which they are months away from finally receiving. Meant by their deceased father to be a modest mid-life supplement, the Plumb siblings have watched The Nest’s value soar along with the stock market and have been counting on the money to solve a number of self-inflicted problems.
Melody, a wife and mother in an upscale suburb, has an unwieldy mortgage and looming college tuition for her twin teenage daughters. Jack, an antiques dealer, has secretly borrowed against the beach cottage he shares with his husband, Walker, to keep his store open. And Bea, a once-promising short-story writer, just can’t seem to finish her overdue novel. Can Leo rescue his siblings and, by extension, the people they love? Or will everyone need to reimagine the future they’ve envisioned? Brought together as never before, Leo, Melody, Jack, and Beatrice must grapple with old resentments, present-day truths, and the significant emotional and financial toll of the accident, as well as finally acknowledge the choices they have made in their own lives.
This is a story about the power of family, the possibilities of friendship, the ways we depend upon one another and the ways we let one another down. In this tender, entertaining, and deftly written debut, Sweeney brings a remarkable cast of characters to life to illuminate what money does to relationships, what happens to our ambitions over the course of time, and the fraught yet unbreakable ties we share with those we love.
The Plumb family is dysfunctional and disconnected but their stories are interlocked in such a way that each piece of the novel brings together a harrowing tale of family, love and regret. This novel is an imperfect disastrous mess of characters who have all made the same fatal mistake, they’ve relied on an inheritance to finance their futures. But then their brother Leo gets into a car accident which catapults a series of lawsuits and expensive rehab bills, and the inheritance is lost.
It is extremely frustrating to watch as these characters struggle with the implications of their lost inheritance, especially since the catastrophe that their lives are amounting to could have been easily avoided. Melody and Jack have lied to their partners about their spending and subsequent loss of the inheritance. Bea, a struggling writer, actually has very little need for the inheritance other than as a source of inspiration for her writing. While, Leo, a “recovering” drug addict and recent divorcee, tries to put plans in place to reimburse his siblings. None of these characters are particularly likeable or moving.
Especially Leo, self destructive and narcissistic, his narration is almost impossible to read without repulsion unfurling in your gut. Which is, I assume, the point. The other characters gravitate towards their older brother in an undeniable and grudging hero worship which is common among younger siblings but impossible to comprehend for the reader.
Each secondary character is given their own voice and part in this story, carefully constructed so that even through short snippets they come off as unique and moving. In doing this, we are made aware of how each Plumb sibling has affected the lives of a vast number of individuals, for better or for worse. In fact the most compelling narratives are those outside of the Plumb siblings’ circle of hell. Nora and Louisa, Melody’s teenage daughters, Vinnie, a veteran intent on helping the victim of Leo’s car crash and Tommy, a firefighter with a touching secret, allow compassion to be evoked in the reader. This is Sweeney’s true feat of writing prowess.
The ending is satisfying and realistic. Ultimately, the Plumb siblings’ learn that they can live without their inheritance and somehow the divide that has separated them is bridged over the strangest circumstances.