The Moment That Breaks a Marriage
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, author of "Good Company," on the turning point that no one sees coming
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Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s second novel, Good Company, begins when Flora Mancini opens an envelope in her garage and finds her husband’s long-lost wedding ring tucked inside.
Learning about Julian’s infidelity splits Flora’s life in two parts; before the discovery, when she believed she was in a rare happy marriage, and after, into a future whose contours she is struggling to see. Flora’s discovery also forces a reckoning with her best friend Margot, an aging actress who’s starting to wonder if she’s happy with her career as Dr. Cat on Cedars, a long-running medical drama.
Sweeney has a knack for capturing modern life, though she couldn’t have anticipated how readers coming out of the COVID-19 epidemic would relate to Flora’s shock at undergoing a sudden, life-changing event. Unexpected change was something that Sweeney already knew about intimately; at the age of 54, she sold her debut novel The Nest for seven figures, and it spent over a month on the New York Times best seller list.
Ultimately, Good Company looks at the bonds we build with the people in our lives, and when—and if—we should cast them aside. I had the pleasure of connecting with Sweeney from her home in Los Angeles to speak about marriage, reinvention, and the reason she’ll never forget the smell of Cool Ranch Doritos.
Carrie Mullins: Good Company starts when Flora finds her husband’s wedding ring in an envelope in the garage. I read that was inspired by your own experience losing some important jewelry?
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney: Yes. I went on a business trip with my husband and we were in a hotel, and I did something I’ve never done in my entire life which was leave my engagement and wedding ring behind in the hotel when we checked out. I never got them back and it was very devastating because it was my grandmother’s wedding ring. When I got home, I started telling everyone, and it seemed like everyone had a story for me about a lost piece of jewelry. It was almost always a ring, and it was often from a grandmother.
I was having trouble figuring out how Flora was going to make this discovery, especially since it was something that took place in the past, and I didn’t want it to be like she saw a text or came upon an email, things we’ve seen before. So then I just thought well, maybe it’s a wedding ring that resurfaces, and that really helped me get into the book.
CM: Objects have a special kind of power, don’t they?
CDS: I’m very obsessed with how objects work in fiction—it’s what I gave my MFA graduate lecture on. I was excited to think that I was going to have this object that would accrue some sort of symbolism for both the reader and for the characters. It becomes a sort of touchstone.
CM: I definitely felt the way that objects resonate throughout the book. It could be jewelry, but it could be anything our mind has attached memories to—for example the way the smell of Noxzema cream takes Margot back to being a young actress. I have young kids who eat an ungodly amount of mango and I feel like 20 years from now, I’m going to open a container of mango from the deli and it’s going to take me back to their sticky, sweet, kind of gross mango hands. Do you have an object like that, your own Noxzema?
CDS: I think that’s one of those things that sometimes takes you by surprise. There are definitely smells from when my kids were little that take me back. When we were taking long car trips, they were allowed to have snacks that they didn’t normally have at home, fruit roll ups and chips and things. I think I said to my husband, this is going to be our madeleine in old age: Cool Ranch Doritos.
CM: Exactly—those objects become portals to a specific moment. It reminds me of how, throughout the book, you explore the idea that there are certain moments in your life after which everything changes. I think this way of framing certain events as “before and after” probably resonates with a lot of readers right now because of COVID. What drew you to that theme at the time you were writing?
CDS: I’m always obsessed with that moment when everything changes that you didn’t see coming. And whether it’s a car accident or finding something that brings a new piece of information into your life or, just like you said, COVID. There’s an Ian McEwan book which I read in my 20s about a father who is in a supermarket with his small son who’s sitting in the shopping basket. The father turns around and turns back and his son is gone. A lot of his fiction centers around that pivot point, the thing that makes you desperately think to yourself, if I could only go back two minutes in time, then I could change this thing. I think it just made such a huge impression on me and really burrowed in.
I also think if you’re a certain type of person, you are going to linger in “the before” for a long time, which layers the present in a way that is difficult. There are other people who are just going to move forward. That’s always interesting to me; it’s interesting as a marriage dynamic and as a friend dynamic.
You know I really changed my life with The Nest, so I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this kind of “before” and “after” is a part of this new book. I also moved to Los Angeles after living in New York for my entire adult life, so in the past few years, I’ve had a lot of those demarcations in my life. They’re great and they’re hard, and people respond to that emotional break and logistical break really differently.
CM: Flora in particular is always trying to work out what these defining moments are, and sometimes they’re obvious, like when she was sitting in therapy with her husband and he could have used that moment to tell her about the ring. But I think what trips her up is that there are these smaller, more tangled decision trees, for example, when exactly did she decide that she wasn’t going to go back to work in the theater after having a baby?
CDS: I think Flora and Margo are at that part of their lives when you have to accept that not everything is a possibility anymore. Your decisions have had repercussions and you are somewhere where not everything is an option and not everything is open to you. In the acting world, the very common trope is that you only need one part to change your life. I’ve heard so many friends of mine say that and at a certain point, I think to myself, really? It can, but only for a very tiny number of people. As you get older you realize that that window of possibility isn’t closing, but it’s certainly narrowing.
CM: Did having such success with The Nest in your 50s change your take on that possibility?
CDS: It did. Though I wrote my entire life so in some ways it felt like a natural evolution. When we moved to Los Angeles, I was really no longer satisfied with the work I was doing, and my kids were getting older, and I thought if I’m going to do something, I better figure it out fast. And I did. But I have the luxury of having a husband with a really great job and not having to contribute a certain amount of income to the household, and I had kids who were old enough, and a partner who’s very supportive. Everyone was like yes, go back to school, we think that’s great, we’ll help however we can. That was huge. And then so much of it is luck.
I happened to get teachers who I really loved and who were very supportive of me. I could not have imagined what was going to happen to me. I had tried writing fiction in my 20s and was very easily scared away from it. I thought that if it didn’t come easily to me, then I must not be good at it, and I gave up very quickly. The good thing about being older was that I could look at what I was writing and say, okay, well, a lot of this isn’t working, but you can figure out how it works. Or someone can help you figure out how it works. You have to ask for help.
So, yeah, I guess my perspective has changed. It’s one of the great things about living in Los Angeles—this is a town where everyone’s always reinventing themselves over and over again. People come here to do things they think are possible here that are not possible in other places. That is very true in many ways.
Having friends who are performers, it doesn’t matter how big of a TV show you are on—when that TV show ends, the following Monday, you’re back at the beginning. You’re auditioning all the time, and you’re sort of having to reinvent yourself within that profession all the time. That was really inspiring to me. I just thought, if all of these people I know are constantly experiencing rejection, and the percent of the time that they get the job is so small and they’ve been doing it for decades and they are still optimistic about the exciting things that could happen, then there’s no excuse for me not to try this thing where I’m in my office and no one’s even watching me. I didn’t have to explain it to anybody if it didn’t work out.
CM: I think in America we all feel that pressure to have success at an early age, and it’s interesting to imagine a different model. My husband and I went to Denmark a couple of years ago and we started talking to an American man who was working in a coffee shop there. He’d married a Danish woman and he was about to go back to grad school in his late 40s because the Danish government was paying for it. They also subsidized his kids. I thought man, this is amazing, this is the model we should be following!
CDS: We could talk about for hours is how this country doesn’t support artists in any way. There’s not even a National Theatre! And it’s really a shame, because the realities of life keep a lot of people who would otherwise be making interesting things from making those things, which is a complete failure of one of the wealthiest societies in the world.
CM: Absolutely, and I really appreciated how Good Company was very honest about the financial aspects of being in the arts. It’s not just dollars, as Flora knows, it’s the space in your apartment, the contents of your trash, and your ability to go to therapy.
CDS: Yeah, that was very important to me. It’s easy for people to glamorize professions like acting when we only see like the little tip of the iceberg, the people who are super successful, or character actors who are working all the time. But you don’t see what that entails and you really don’t see all of the people who couldn’t make that compromise work.
I’ll always remember during my graduate program, there was one night when Jeff Dyer was supposed to speak and he couldn’t come at the last minute because there was someone in his family who was very ill. So they put together this ad hoc panel of teachers in the program and they just opened it up for questions. People were asking questions as basic as how do I get health insurance? And at one point, one of the faculty members on stage said, um, well you know none of us sitting here have kids, and that’s not a coincidence. I felt that in the marrow. It was a low residency program that tends to have a lot of writers who have families, people who can’t just take off and go to Iowa for a couple of years, and I thought, what are you telling probably 60% of the people in this room? That they’ve already messed up? But it was brutally honest.
CM: What did you need to show in order to chart the evolution of a marriage?
CDS: And a friendship. I’m very lucky that I have a great marriage, and I have a husband who is totally supportive and understanding. But you know, in every couple you disappoint each other—it’s just inevitable that things happen in life that put pressure on a relationship. It’s inevitable that everyone’s expectations cannot possibly be met in every situation. And so you have to detangle them and figure out what is reasonable.
I think it really comes out when you have kids, and when you are figuring out what your parenting styles are. For us, it really came out when we moved to Los Angeles. I moved here six months before my husband because he had to stay back and plan, and that was a really horrible time because our styles of dealing with what was kind of a traumatic circumstance were so completely different. My way of dealing with stress is to put one foot in front of the other—like we’re not even going to acknowledge what’s happening here, it’s too upsetting. And he wanted to talk about how upsetting it was, and I was like I can’t, I’m here with the kids! I had a graduate teacher who always used to say, put your characters in a situation that puts pressure on them, and how they behave or what decisions they make will reveal their character. And so that’s also something I thought about a lot when I was writing Good Company: at every little pressure point in the marriage, who went which way?