Genre: Domestic Fiction, Contemporary
Published: Ecco (April 6, 2021)
Print length: 320 pages
Major spoilers: No
Flora Mancini has been happily married for more than twenty years. But everything she thought she knew about herself, her marriage, and her relationship with her best friend, Margot, is upended when she stumbles upon an envelope containing her husband’s wedding ring—the one he claimed he lost one summer when their daughter, Ruby, was five.
Flora and Julian struggled for years, scraping together just enough acting work to raise Ruby in Manhattan and keep Julian’s small theater company—Good Company—afloat. A move to Los Angeles brought their first real career successes, a chance to breathe easier, and a reunion with Margot, now a bona fide television star. But has their new life been built on lies? What happened that summer all those years ago? And what happens now?
ARC provided by publisher
Good Company by Cynthia D’aprix Sweeney takes a lazy, maze-like amble through two marriages—Flora and Julian’s, and Margot and David’s—spanning the easy beginnings, passions as they fizzle out into ambivalence, and questions of whether something ruined can be rekindled anew. The discovery of a wedding ring thought to be lost sends Flora and all the relationships around her into tumult and so begins a journey through time—though this journey is by no means chronological or perspective-limited.
More often than not, I find head-switching and leaps through time unnecessarily convoluted. In this case, I felt like Sweeney created something that wasn’t at any point incoherent or confused. The narrative is sure-footed; it never seems to stumble. Some perspective shifts were more abrupt than others, yes, and perhaps a little needless, sure, but I wasn’t ever really mad at them.
As for the non-chronological shifts through time, I thought this choice lended the novel something almost marvelous—in terms of the marvelous real—and was a very well-executed way of endowing or revoking retroactive realizations as the narrative saw fit. It made certain revelations land more like gut-wrenching blows, and others flutter into stillness like moths.
In spite of the time leaps, the novel is more languid than it is brisk. This is likely because the narrative is character-driven, something I love in a book when it comes with readable prose and an interesting premise, all of which Good Company checked off.
Flora and Margot’s early relationship is built around acting in New York City, which means, in addition to meditations on female friendship, there is plenty of theatre to sink your teeth into. This early friendship—rich with wonder, fast-paced, almost claustrophobic—is juxtaposed with later developments that tug the two best friends from the east coast to the west. New York City against LA, the brightly-lit melodrama of theatre versus clinical Hollywood acting, restlessness as it settles into the calm of late adulthood. These parts of the novel were well-researched and always interesting to someone like me, who’s obsessed with narrative minutiae. For others, the info-dumping might become unbearable, particularly as relationship histories are dissected and rehashed and dissected again. There’s a lot of interiority to Good Company. It’s neutralized to some extent, however, by the outward—the kinesthetic—tension between both couples.
Though development is not equally distributed between Flora/Julian and Margot/David, there’s a good amount to go around. The women of the novel receive the bulk of this development and are by consequence the most sympathetic characters. Flora and Margot feel fleshed-out, flawed, real and raw. Julian and David sort of fade into oblivion as a result and don’t much interest me. Good Company’s greatest strengths and most pointed triumphs are its women—even little Ruby, Flora and Julian’s daughter, as she blooms into a bright-eyed adult. The mother-daughter relationship is heartwarmingly excellent. Jealousy, love, and misunderstanding between Flora, Margot, and Ruby make the journey a rewarding one.
But there are also, of course, certain issues.
The developmental deficiency between the women and the men in the novel make it fundamentally flawed. We’re supposed to root for these people, to want forgiveness and transformation for them, to see them as a tight-knit family of five, but Julian, for example, remains unsympathetic throughout Good Company. For the vast majority of the narrative, his mistakes are unloaded. His treatment of Flora is questionable at best, terrible at worst, and by the time revelations about this treatment have been made—that Flora has existed for most of their relationship not as her own person, but as a forced extension of him—there’s no time for him to atone, to really change. Instead, we’re left with the knowledge that he’s made grave mistakes and has had to do little to nothing to right them, or himself. We have to buy that most of his evolution has already happened “offscreen” over the last several years, where readers can’t see or track it. The result is asymmetrical. Flora feels full-bodied, tender and tear-jerking, while her husband is a shadow of her, someone I didn’t want to win or even see earn Flora’s forgiveness.
The same can be said for David/Margot, to a lesser degree. David has so little stake in the novel that he’s almost totally useless. He and Margot share unresolved issues that briefly flicker into view, but neither of their hands are ever forced. Because of this, the narrative ends without a resolution or even conversations about finding one. His character left me bewildered and seemed to exist to provide angst without any of the pay-off. I almost wish we’d had more time with him and Margot, to find the redeeming qualities in their marriage.
There’s a lot to like about Good Company, mainly the way Sweeney sketches out the women of her world and allows them to take flight or nurse their injured wings. The novel is tender in places and bitingly bittersweet in others. My biggest issue was the amount of sadness that went to waste, and how forgiving the narrative was to Julian, without reason. Overall, I would call this a 3.5 star read, worth the journey for its detail-driven introspection and its women.