By Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
It has become a truism that serialized television, notably the kind found on premium cable or streaming networks, has replaced the novel. When dramas like “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” took over the culture in the early aughts, the cliffhangers and capacious story arcs drew comparisons to Dickens and Thackeray, with audiences gripped in collective suspense as the story teased itself out in their living rooms.
In the days before the stream and binge era, when audiences were forced to wait a week between meals, the peristaltic process had a healthy rhythm. But today’s era of full-season dumps and limited series that can be wrapped up in a small handful of airtight episodes has created something of a prepared foods market for television executives. Instead of original scripts and ideas, it’s all about “I.P.”: pre-existing, easily adaptable intellectual property, often in the form of novels.
Writers of novels know this. Moreover, they know that the vicissitudes and changing business model of publishing mean that a novel’s success may depend just as much (and sometimes quite a bit more) on its potential for dramatic adaptation as it does on its ability to reach readers. As such, the contemporary novel has become a kind of television treatment, a story bible doing double duty as a literary experience.
“Good Company,” the second novel by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, whose 2016 debut, “The Nest,” was a walloping best seller, is rich with such biblical qualities. A marriage story set in tony but not ostentatious Los Angeles neighborhoods like Larchmont and Los Feliz, its inciting incident happens in the opening pages, where a wife, going through clutter in the garage, discovers her husband’s supposedly long-lost wedding band.
The subsequent 26 chapters amount to a painstaking parsing of the couple’s relationship trajectory. Working actors who met decades earlier in New York City, Flora and Julian were denizens of a Greenwich Village bohemia in its last gasps of affordability, raising their small daughter in a cramped apartment, scraping by on Flora’s voice-over work and organizing their lives around Good Company, a downtown theater troupe that operates on the edge of debt and mounts productions of “The Crucible” because “it’s the perfect allegory for Guantánamo Bay.”
When a television role for Julian instigates a move to Los Angeles, the family is once again close to Flora’s best friend, Margot, a famous if not A-list television actress who’s long been a sort of surrogate parent to their daughter, Ruby. In a familiar trope of female friendship, Margot is everything Flora is not: effortlessly stylish, benignly narcissistic, an Italian-American of the “summers in Tuscany” variety as opposed to Flora’s “Sunday sauce, weekly Mass” Bay Ridge-Italian. Margot plays a pediatric oncologist on a prime-time medical drama called “Cedar” and is married to David, a real-life cardiac surgeon whose life and career were upended by a stroke some years earlier.
Sweeney employs shifting points of view throughout the novel, but the one we’re most privy to is Flora’s, which is filtered through the slightly shaded prism of the underdog. To her, Margot’s house resembles “every other renovated mansion Flora had ever been in,” with its closets full of folded white sheets tied with color-coded satin ribbons and a color scheme she derides as “50 shades of café au lait.” Hosting a lavish graduation party for Ruby, Margot had considered flying in a catering crew to simulate a New England clambake. Flora was appalled by the overkill and relieved when the plan was scrapped, though “if she was honest with herself, she’d been tempted.”
The constant internal struggle between what the heart wants versus what it should be grateful it already has serves as the primary emotional engine of “Good Company.” (There is also a heart leitmotif — a heart attack, a heart-shaped locket, an infant heart surgery patient — that is administered perhaps a bit too thickly.) Margot wants to be taken seriously as an actor rather than just paid handsomely as a TV star. Flora wants to be her own person rather than an appendage of the all-consuming theater company. (She and Julian even have a cutesy couple portmanteau, Florian, which Flora resents.) Most of all, Flora wants Julian to love her a little more ferociously than he was ever inclined to do. In one of the novel’s most piercing lines of dialogue, he tells her, early in their relationship, “I don’t know why I’m so ambivalent about you.”
Julian, for his part, seems to want the ballast of family without giving up the train-wreck delights of his bachelor life. The missing ring, we eventually learn (the author, to her credit, makes no pretense of surprising us), is a talisman of betrayal. The remainder of the story is taken up mostly by Flora’s indecision over what to do about it.
“She felt a loosening of something she’d tamped down for a long time, and it didn’t feel awful, it felt warm and liquid, and if the feeling were to take a sentient shape it would be an enormous glowing question mark,” Sweeney writes.
“Did she still have to accept a name she hated?
“Did she still love Julian?
“Did she have to stay married?
“Did she want to?”
If this sounds like promotional copy for a Netflix poster, well … success! Reading “Good Company,” I found myself mentally auditioning actors for the inevitable series. Tellingly, I did not find myself imagining more than a handful of actual, real-time scenes, because the book doesn’t have all that many. Much of the first third of the novel is taken up with back story. We see Flora struggling as a stage actor before finding work as a voice actor. We see Julian struggling with lukewarm love. In a “meet cute” so ridiculous that even the writers of “Cedar” would probably cut it, we see David, as a young doctor, rush onstage at a Shakespeare in the Park performance after an actor collapses onstage. He performs chest compressions in front of a stunned audience and, upon stabilizing the patient, is approached by Margot, ethereal in her fairy costume, who takes his hands in gratitude. The audience applauds.
In “The Nest,” a family saga about inheritance, Sweeney’s tendency toward cliché and Hallmark moments was undercut by the sharp edges and dark forces of at least a few characters. “Good Company” occasionally gestures in that direction. The woman involved in Julian’s betrayal is self-contradictory, even pathetic. The idea that such a person could wield so much sexual and emotional power is fascinating; I wanted more of her and a little less of Flora’s good girl hand-wringing.
Similarly, the behind-the-scenes machinations of the “Cedar” set offer moments of delicious satire. When Margot learns her character will be killed off, the show’s creator, a formidable but anxious doyenne in the Shonda Rhimes vein, indulges her in a brainstorming session about what would make for the most vanity-appeasing demise: “I’m giving you a kick-ass death. It’s going to be so good everyone will clamor to hire you.”
Sweeney is uncommonly skilled at gently lampooning Hollywood. Just as she absolutely nails the formulaic milieu of “Cedar,” her description of “Griffith,” the animated musical series on which Flora ultimately finds a steady, reasonably satisfying gig voicing a lioness, is pitch perfect. A show where animals at the now-defunct Griffith Park Zoo function as metaphorical representations of Hollywood actors pigeonholed by typecasting and ageism? Someone greenlight that immediately!
Meanwhile, “Good Company,” with its pre-scouted locations and fully rendered characters looking for things to do, is a promising piece of I.P. Sweeney may or may not have screenwriting ambitions, but I’d love to see her do something with it.
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