The journey to the Chhota Shigri Glacier, in the Himalayan peaks of northern India, begins thousands of feet below, in New Delhi—a city of twenty-five million people, where smoke from diesel trucks and cow-dung fires dims the sky and where the temperature on a hot summer day can reach a hundred and fifteen degrees. The route passes through a churning sprawl of low-land cities, home to some fifty million people, until the Himalayas come into view: a steep wall rising above the plains, the product of a tectonic collision that began thousands of years ago and is still under way. From there, the road snakes upward, past cows and trucks and three-wheeled taxis and every other kind of moving evidence of India’s economic transformation. If you turn around, you can see a great layer of smog, lying over northern India like a dirty shroud. In the mountains, the number of cars drops sharply—limited by government regulation, for fear of what the smog is doing to the ice. The road mostly lacks shoulders; on turns, you look into ravines a thousand feet deep. After the town of Manali, the air cools, and the road cuts through forests of spruce and cedar and fir.
In sharing a variety of children’s books that have grandparent characters, I discovered something. The grandparents in books are nothing like the real “grands” I know. My grand friends are everything from aeronauts to zookeepers. They are vibrant, vivacious, and bon vivant. They can be described with an alphabet of adjectives from alluring to zesty.
The books I’m reading, though, show grandparents who are quite the opposite. The grands in most children’s literature don’t have jobs, volunteer or paid. They can be described in adjectives from addled to zany. They all fit a similar profile — they bake, they rock (only in chairs, not in a good, rock and roll way), they knit, they garden, they fish or golf, and they do it all with paunches and ponchos and very little panache.
“The Nest” is a novel in the Squabbling Sibling genre. Unless such stories are told by someone of the caliber of Chekhov or Dostoyevsky, they tend to be domestic comedies padded with lucky coincidences and studded with old grudges. And they need to be set in motion by some convenient family crisis and venue.
That trigger can be a vacation in Majorca, Spain (Emma Straub’s “The Vacationers”), or sitting shiva in suburbia (Jonathan Tropper’s “This Is Where I Leave You”), or a wedding at the family’s once-sacrosanct, soon-to-be-despoiled summer palace. Or, like Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s debut novel, “The Nest,” it can be the bare-bones version. “The Nest” doesn’t need much in the way of set dressing. It just has the author’s excellent antennas for describing the New York area and that evergreen fuel for food fights: an inheritance meant to be divided among adult children.
For the past few months, however, I’ve finally started to cook for myself. I’ve found that the physical act of cooking alleviates symptoms of stress and anxiety almost immediately. Food is such an inextricable part of the human condition, however, that the simple sensation of having some meat and vegetables sizzling on a pan is also affecting me on a deeper emotional level. Even the often arduous process of prepping, grocery shopping, and washing dishes has added a level of structure to my life and gradually normalized my daily routine.