Marriages of long standing are tested in quiet, contained ‘Good Company’

Long-time couples and old friendships come under scrutiny in Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s highly anticipated second novel.

Harper Collins Publishers
"Good Company" by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, Ecco, 320 pp.

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s debut novel, “The Nest,” published in 2016 made a huge splash. A surprisingly endearing family saga about what money does to people – specifically, four adult siblings fighting over a trust fund they’re all hoping will help solve their problems, financial and otherwise – it’s a hard act to follow. 

For one thing, it’s harder to make a visible splash when the waters are already churned up with expectations. Sweeney’s second novel, “Good Company,” is less likely to create ripples. It’s a smoothly constructed story about love, friendship, and trust between two closely connected couples whose relationships go back decades. The title refers to a small New York theatrical company started by one of its main characters, but also to what these people find in each other.  

Where “The Nest” was feathered with writers and publishing people, “Good Company” presents a roster of actors – stage, small screen, and voiceover. These are not superstars, and Sweeney deftly captures not just the different kinds of work actors do, but the grind of auditions, variable employment, and hard-earned mid-level success. (She chooses not to focus on the often nasty competitiveness between performers.) 

The main drama of “Good Company” occurs far from any sound stage or theater. Sweeney sets her story in motion when Flora Mancini, a voiceover actress, unexpectedly comes across the wedding ring her husband, Julian Fletcher, had supposedly lost 13 years earlier, the summer their daughter, Ruby, was five. Now Ruby is 18 and about to graduate from high school.  

Flora finds the ring in an envelope while rifling through a file cabinet in their Los Angeles garage looking for an old photograph, which she wants to frame for Ruby as a graduation present – a group portrait of Julian, Flora, Ruby, and their best friends, Margot and David, taken in upstate New York that same summer. The discovery of Julian’s deliberate deception shakes Flora to her core, causing her to doubt the marriage she had smugly felt was so much better than others’.

Unearthing long-buried evidence of spousal deceit is a common literary trope, a plot trigger that leads to explorations of the inner workings of long marriages and raises questions about how well we know the people we love. Often, as in Penelope Lively’s “The Photograph” and Sue Miller’s “Monogamy,” posthumous discoveries of duplicity upend memories and exacerbate grief. Learning that friends and family might have known about this transgression all along compounds the painful sense of betrayal.

By opening with Flora’s upsetting discovery, Sweeney puts us on notice what kind of book we’re about to read.  She sets the hook, and we trawl back in time with her to learn what happened – how these characters met and came to this pass – and what Flora is going to do about it.  

To bring her characters closer, Sweeney switches between tight third person perspectives, mainly toggling between Flora and her closest friend, Margot Letta, who were roommates as struggling young actresses in New York before they became friends. 

Actually, Margot never struggled; her mother was a successful actress who paved the way for her. She grew up in a well-appointed house in Connecticut. Flora, in contrast, grew up in an apartment above a bakery in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with a single mom who dreamed of an acting career but ended up working as a hotel telephone operator.  

In “The Nest,” Sweeney demonstrated a sensitivity to how financial issues can come to dominate and skew relationships. She handles the “financial crevasse” between Margot and Flora in “Good Company” with similar aplomb – but also, with a surprising absence of friction.

Margot is a generous friend – especially after she lands a lucrative part in a long-running night-time hospital television drama – and Flora pretty much accepts her generosity. That’s their dynamic. It was Margot who urged insecure Flora to attend the Upper West Side party where she met Julian Fletcher, it was Margot who helped Flora land one of her first stage roles, and it’s Margot who takes Ruby on shopping sprees and hosts her graduation party. 

Ironically, by the time Flora finds the ring, she and Julian are finally on better financial footing, having both landed steady roles after following their friends out west. 

“Good Company” is as carefully constructed as a well-made play, and it runs without hitches. One of the sharper characters is an Upper West Side therapist, who Sweeney nails down to her Eileen Fisher skirt and Aerosole shoes. But with the exception of a malign seductress, the characters are just too nice – which can be a comfort, but also a drama killer. The symbolism of a dying hemlock is ridiculously heavy handed, though not enough to make us laugh. Margot’s husband, a doctor, the fourth member of their quartet, has an interesting backstory, but he’s a cipher in this narrative. 

It all adds up to a relaxing read that echoes Flora’s take on Margot’s tastefully remodeled house – beige and bland, “polished but somehow devoid of personality.” Even with Flora’s anger and sorrow, there’s little heat. The result is OK but not great company. 

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