By Nightfall – Book Review

The Mistake is coming to stay for awhile. – from By Nightfall, page 1 –

Peter and Rebecca Harris live in Manhattan’s SoHo district. Peter, an art dealer, and Rebecca, an editor, have one child, Bea, who has dropped out of college to sling drinks at a bar in Boston. Both in their mid-40s, they live a contemporary urban life filled with high end parties, end of the day Martinis, and busy days rubbing elbows with the rich and obnoxious. They have worked their entire lives for this type of lifestyle…and yet, the cracks in their marriage are beginning to widen, fueled by a wayward daughter and middle-age.

What marriage doesn’t involve uncountable accretions, a language of gestures, a sense of recognition sharp as a toothache? Unhappy, sure. What couple isn’t unhappy, at least part of the time? But how can the divorce rate be, as they say, skyrocketing? How miserable would you have to get to be able to bear the actual separation, to go off and live your life so utterly unrecognized? – from By Nightfall, page 8 –

So when Rebecca’s much younger brother, Ethan (referred to as “Mizzy” or The Mistake) arrives to spend time with Rebecca and Peter, the precarious balance between them shifts. Ethan is a drug addict with no real sense of direction. He is charming, beautiful (almost like one of the bronze statues which Peter sells), and a liar…and yet, there is something about Mizzy which Peter cannot deny.

The mystery of Mizzy: Where did the boy genius go? He had been, as a child, expected to be a neurosurgeon or a great novelist. And now he’s considering (or, okay, refusing to consider) law school. Was the burden of his potential too much for him? – from By Nightfall, page 58 –

Narrated from Peter’s limited point of view, Michael Cunningham’s novel takes a hard look at urban professional life, modern marriage, and sexual identity. Peter is clearly struggling with a mid-life crisis. He reflects on the death of his older brother, Matthew, who was gay and begins to question his own identity as a husband, father, and man. Peter’s memories of his brother are complicated by his fantasies for a girl named Joanna who dated his brother in high school – especially since he now knows that the adult Joanna – “hale and handsome, cheerfully pushing forty with a wallet full of photos, a pretty and sturdy woman with no hint of sex about her” – veers sharply away from the high school Joanna unfastening the top of her bikini on a trip to the lake. All of Peter’s memories, feelings and insecurities are a jumbled mess infiltrating his present life.

A virus ate Matthew. Time ate Joanna. What’s eating Peter? – from By Nightfall, page 117 –

It is not hard to predict where the novel is heading as Peter finds himself questioning the predictable course of his life and yearning for a little danger and excitement, something to “upend his own life.”

Michael Cunningham’s prose is ironic, observant and sharply rendered. Which is why I found myself dismayed that I did not love this novel. None of the characters are terribly likable. They are self-absorbed, and a little too carefully constructed. Peter’s actions and choices seemed improbable to me. Rebecca was like a ghost of a person – sketched out, but not fully realized. And yet, I kept reading because I was curious. I wanted to know the ultimate resolution. And I thought I did know exactly what was going to happen. But, it was here where Cunningham surprised me with an ending I did not anticipate.

So how do I rate this book? On the one hand, there is no denying Cunningham’s power as a writer. He can spin a sentence like almost no other contemporary author out there. And he manages to take the reader in a direction, only to change it up at the end in a surprising way. On the other hand, I disliked the characters and found the plot a bit unbelievable. The book started out strong to me, but I got tired of Peter’s self-serving voice. Fortunately, the end of the book left me feeling more satisfied. Sensitive readers (which I am not), may find some of the content in this novel off putting. Cunningham’s dialogue is realistic and he dips into sexual fantasy which is a bit uncomfortable at times. However, readers who are interested in exploring themes of modern marriage, identity and love will find themselves drawn to By Nightfall. Additionally, this book would make for excellent discussion in a book club.

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Overall Rating:

FTC Disclosure: Thanks to Picador who sent me a copy of this book for inclusion in BOOK CLUB (discussion of the book will be happening on August 23rd on Nicole’s blog).

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    • Laura on August 21, 2011 at 14:49

    Wonderful, articulate review. The premise of this one sounds like something I might enjoy. I did really love The Hours.

  1. I really like Michael Cunningham. I look forward to reading this book at some point. 🙂

  2. The plot of this book sounds intriguing, but if you had no trouble figuring out what was going to happen, I can see that I might be in the same boat. Plenty of others have said that this book is sort of hard to digest, due to the characters and the subject matter, so I don’t know if I would really take a chance it, but I really appreciated your elegant and well-rounded review. Great job on dissecting this one!

    • Nicole on August 22, 2011 at 12:13

    I think this one will make for a really interesting discussion, but I really didn’t loke it much. I had no problem with any of the content aside from it being relentlessly depressing – and I knew exactly what would happen.

    • Amy on August 23, 2011 at 09:00

    This book sounds interesting although it also sounds like it leaves you with the feeling of wanting more. It’s difficult when none of the characters are that likable despite how fascinating they may be. I think Cunningham is a terrific writer but I’m surprised by this book. I’ve read most of his others which are quite good and give you a lot more to delve into. Still, I wish I’d been able to be part of the Book Club discussion and I’m interested to see what others think.

    Thank you for another compelling review :o)

    • Wendy on August 25, 2011 at 07:47

    Laura: I loved The Hours too…hope you’ll like this one.

    Kailana: Hope you’ll enjoy it!

    Heather: This seems to be one of those books either loved or not. Our book discussion was interesting – I would say that most people appreciated the writing, but disliked the characters.

    Nicole: thanks for a great discussion!

    Amy: If you drop by the discussion, beware there are spoilers…but, it is definitely discussion-worthy. Hope you’ll get a chance to read the book soon.

  3. Bummer! Unlikeable characters and an unbelievable plot makes me reconsider picking this one up. Maybe I’ll reread The Hours. 🙂

    • Wendy on August 29, 2011 at 06:33

    Les: I don’t think you’d love this one based on your reading preferences. I was a little disappointed. The writing was so good, but I just disliked the characters so much – I was glad to see them go when I turned the final page! The Hours was so much better!!!

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