Turning the Page

New Yorkers and their money problems have been the stuff of novels for a long, long time (think Edith Wharton, for instance). Novelist Cynthia Daprix Sweeney updates the theme in “The Nest” (Ecco), a smartly executed tale of two brothers and two sisters in New York City who are trying hard to ruin what could have been comfortable lives. A light adventure story, the book is perfect for a summertime read.

When Leonard Plumb dies young, he leaves his self-made family fortune to his children – Leo, Jack, Bea and Melody. But there’s a catch. Leonard stipulates that they, in the interest of becoming fully independent, will have to wait until the youngest child turns 40 before they can claim their money. This, of course, doesn’t stop them from fantasizing about the cash, or spending it before the inheritance – which they fondly refer to as “the nest” – gets into their hands. Meant originally as a modest supplement to their incomes, the investment market has turned the nest into a sizable fortune.

The story opens with the oldest sibling, Leo, speeding away from a family wedding celebration in a Porsche with a teenage caterer. He’s drunk, stoned and financially ruined because of a costly divorce. As might be expected, his tryst goes disastrously wrong, ending in a high speed crash, with his passenger badly injured. To make his troubles go away, he pillages the $2 million nest. Leo’s siblings are horrified to learn that their mother, exercising her power of attorney, has let Leo burn through almost all of it.

But with love and money, strange things happen. In true sibling fashion, Leos’ sisters and brother meet at Grand Central’s Oyster Bar – one of many sharply observed New York settings – to sort out the mess and quickly fall into their childhood roles. From that meeting, the author takes us back to fill in the stories of each of the siblings, quirky New Yorkers who are all trying to maintain an image for each other that is not entirely accurate or true.

Much to Sweeney’s credit, she develops all four into believable, if not always, sympathetic people. There’s Jack – a gay, antique dealer wanting to keep his problems secret from his husband, Walker. Truly desperate for cash, his business going broke and about to lose the summer home he shares with Walker, he becomes involved in a shady deal involving a work of art stolen from the ruins of the World Trade Center.

Melody, the youngest, has spent years trying to keep up with the Joneses. She has scrimped and pinched pennies to keep her twin daughters in the right neighborhood and right school and she has never bothered to save for their impending college education.

There’s Beatrice – a widowed writer who tanked after three stories that made her briefly one of “New York’s Newest Voices: Who You Should Be Reading.” She’s working on a novel she promised would come to fruition 20 years ago; she cares little about money but wants to find success on her own and not in the shadow of Leo, the dominant of the four Plumbs.

Leo is not very likable. He’s amoral, self-centered and greedy. Fresh out of rehab, he seeks shelter with an ex-girlfriend in Brooklyn. Stephanie, the ex, is far kinder to him than he deserves. She takes him in, feeds him and rekindles their relationship knowing it might be a big mistake. Leo has a shot at redemption, but the novel’s key question is whether he will take it. Sweeney shows us Leo’s sunny upside along with his dark underbelly and gives no easy answers about which will prevail.

The Plumbs’ problems at first seem mundane and may have some readers rolling their eyes, until they’re shown how these flaws are representative of the characters as a whole. Once the Plumbs are faced with the reality of hard work and perseverance in a time they expected to be floating on a cloud of wealth, their relationships, at first, dismantle and then repair in a way anyone with family can identify.

“The Nest” is an easy read – not terribly deep – and maybe not for all tastes. There’s something to be said, however, for a book that one can happily pick up for an hour or so each day and be able to put down when duty calls.

The story kept a steady pace throughout, and I appreciated how Sweeney carefully constructed the Plumb family saga that spanned generations and gave everybody something in which to relate. If you’re looking for a lazy day read over these stifling summer days – a book that will make you chuckle and possibly make you nod your head in agreement – pick up a copy of “The Nest.”