Sweeney’s comic debut, “The Nest,” was a breakout success in 2016. To hilarious effect, it focuses on four siblings bickering over their late father’s trust fund. “Good Company” is a sweeter novel, gentler all around, though the stakes are higher than the disappointments of a few middle-aged leeches.
Also, “The Nest” is very much a novel about living in New York, while “Good Company” is about having left it behind for Los Angeles. Sweeney made the cross-country transition herself in 2009, so she knows how questioning that decision can remain a haunting compulsion. Her new characters — actors of various kinds who have moved to L.A. — are still judging their commercial productions in La La Land against artistic endeavors in the Big Apple. For most readers, though, “Good Company” will resonate as a story about those rare choices that define life by cleanly dividing it into Before and After.
In the opening pages of “Good Company,” Flora is looking for an old photo that captures a cherished summer back in Upstate New York. Her daughter is about to graduate from high school in Los Angeles, and Flora knows the snapshot, nicely framed, would make a perfect present. But when Flora finds the picture among some old papers in the garage, she also finds the wedding ring that her husband, Julian, claimed he’d lost in a lake that summer. Its reappearance suddenly calls into question what was really going on during those August nights — and during all the years since.
“Good Company” functions very much like that beloved photo. It’s a moment caught in time, but its meaning is informed by everything around it. Flora and Julian and their friends may be smiling and looking at the camera, but that doesn’t mean they were all seeing the same thing. And this novel plays with time in a similarly complex way, moving back into the history of a small group to bring everything to bear on the perfectly staged image of “the couple everyone wanted to be.”
Flora and Julian are the exceptional theater people who seem to have done the impossible: made a stable life together. “Flora didn’t realize how much she’d invested in the mythology of her marriage,” Sweeney writes. “Like good actors, they whittled it down to a few symbolic moments that added up to the legend of Florian.”
There are no villains in “Good Company,” which only makes the theme of betrayal more poignant — and more realistic. As Flora tries to figure out what the rediscovered wedding ring means and what she’s going to do about it, we’re drawn deep into the experiences of her family and her most trusted friends, Margot and David. Over the years, they’ve grown much more successful and considerably wealthier — Margot is a TV star, David is a doctor — but the two families have never let that push them apart. What develops is a story about the twisted strands of devotion and envy that hold any long-term relationship together.
Before she got married, Flora hoped to make her mark on Broadway, and though she got a few small parts now and then, she lived the precarious life of so many part-time artists in New York. But eventually, Flora gave up her dreams, stepped away from “legitimate theater” and started doing voice-over work for commercials. Suddenly, she felt she was hovering in the confluence of her old theater colleagues’ pity and envy.
Sweeney builds that conflict between artistic purity and adult practicality right into Flora’s marriage. While she makes the sacrifices necessary to keep their family financially solvent, her husband is the co-founder of a theater called Good Company, which becomes “the defining law of their existence.” It’s a noble endeavor, to be sure, one of those high-quality, low-profit Manhattan groups with a summer stock off-shoot in Upstate New York. Flora would never admit to being irritated by Julian’s success, but there’s something annoying about the way the world conforms to the desires of handsome, charismatic men like her husband. She can’t help but notice that “a group of young company members — all women, of course — fell into formation like a chorus line executing a series of perfect kicks. One became his de facto assistant, another a self-appointed company secretary, a third kept petty annoyances at bay.”
“Did you organize all this?” Flora asks him.
“No, it just kind of happened,” he replies, oblivious to his own power.
Sweeney’s effectiveness as a novelist stems from her protean sympathy, her ability to move among these characters and capture each one’s feelings without judgment. As we see some of the same events from various points of view, we don’t learn who was right — who could ever be right, after all? — but we get a poignant, sometimes comic sense of the way we each experience the same events, the same decisions, the same mistakes. In Sweeney’s hands, that’s not a recipe for endless conflict, but a road to understanding and — maybe — forgiveness.
By Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney