Three chapters in to Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest I checked the publication date (2016) and decided no, despite the nagging feeling, I hadn’t read the book before. Four chapters in I checked this site to be absolutely sure I hadn’t read it before. I have been known to forget things like books I’ve read (or meetings, or words, or…)
on occasion constantly. Trusty site confirmed that it was a “new” read.
So what gives? Why did I feel the. entire. time. i. was. reading. like I’d read the book before? Turns out it’s not me. It’s the book. It takes a hackneyed plot (dysfunctional family tries their best and ultimately finds they just need to be themselves and believe in one another), adds in the *cough* ‘unique’ twist of being about a writer in New York, adds another (actual) twist in the form of some (albeit well sketched) secondary characters and expects… what? It expects – and gets – instant bestseller status. D’Aprix got a million dollar advance for the book (her first). It was named a book of the year by reputable sources (NPR, The Washington Post), the New York Times book review liked it, too.
And I can see why. There’s something compelling about a family drama of white people with money struggling (oh the struggle) to get the kids into a good college, to not lose the summer house, to publish a novel. Did I say compelling? Sorry. I meant… tired. So wait – why is the book so popular?
If I had to guess (and be a grump about it) I’d suggest it’s because the book wonders whether people who have lived for other people can change, can learn to not be a ‘mirror’ for other people, but can, instead, have their own ambitions, desires, directions – without feeling like they need the approval of the outside, or someone else. And it asks this of all our characters in slightly different (though not so subtle that you’d risk in any way missing the point) ways and then resolves with the assurance that yes (!) people (!) can (!) change (!) and that you can actualize a life that meets all your
material emotional needs. And that’s a satisfying message for an angsty reading audience wondering if they, too, might get – eventually, and with a little hard work – all the things they both desire and feel they deserve.
It’s curious though. One of my favourite books in my early 20s was East of Eden. I read it every spring through undergrad (and a few times after that) precisely because of this message of choice – that we can in some appreciable way shape our own destiny (it’s not a belief a hold with any certainty or consistency, and so reading it each spring seemed an exercise in emotional-muscle-memory, trying to trick my brain into accepting some version of independent will). And so I shouldn’t grate against The Nest for its thematic interest alone. And I know that’s not just it. It’s the recycled plot and the cliche set of characters and the nauseating attempt at commentary on economic inequality.
So resist the urge (as I couldn’t) when you see this one on the list of suggested reads. And listen to your mum when she tells you it’s not worth reading. Sorry, mum.